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Netanyahu, Bennett hold long-awaited meeting
By GIL HOFFMAN
02/11/2013
Bennett meets PM in "to the point" meeting, for 1st time in 5 years after apologizing to Sara Netanyahu for "course on terror” remark.
 
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Bayit Yehudi leader Naftali Bennett held a long-awaited meeting in Tel Aviv on Monday, the last of Netanyahu's meetings with all the leaders of Knesset's 12 parties since the January 22 election.

A statement released after the meeting said only that they discussed "issues of the day" and plan to meet again.

Unlike official statements released following the prime minister's previous meetings with party leaders, this statement did not mention a "good atmosphere," but was described as "to the point."

The meeting took place after Bennett took to the airwaves to apologize to Netanyahu’s wife, Sara, for saying that he had endured “a course on terror” with her.

Even though the Likud had announced Thursday evening that Netanyahu would meet with Bennett at the beginning of this week, Netanyahu’s office did not even call Bennett’s associates to organize the meeting until Bennett apologized.

The last meeting between Netanyahu and the Bayit Yehudi leader took place five years ago, before Bennett quit his job as Netanyahu’s chief of staff following a dispute with Sara. In an interview with Army Radio on Sunday morning, Bennett defended the prime minister’s much-maligned wife.

“The attacks on Sara Netanyahu are unacceptable,” Bennett said. “She is a good woman who loves her husband.

He has a right to consult with her, as I do with my wife. If someone wants to criticize Netanyahu’s policies, he’s the address, not her.”

Bennett’s associates said he would devote the meeting to his socioeconomic agenda, which includes lowering housing costs, rehabilitating poor neighborhoods, an open skies policy for competition with El Al and advancing a bill that would prevent tycoons from owning too many companies.

Netanyahu intended to check whether Bennett would be willing to join a coalition without Yesh Atid, despite reports of a political deal between Bennett and Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid. Likud sources have said they would be willing to give Bayit Yehudi better portfolios if they become the first party to join the coalition.

Bayit Yehudi is seeking the chairmanship of the Knesset Finance Committee, and while Bennett wants the Construction and Housing portfolio, he would settle for another top economic portfolio like Transportation or Industry, Trade and Labor.

Negotiations with Yesh Atid resumed on Monday. Channel 10 reported that if Lapid is not given the Foreign Ministry, he might take the Finance portfolio and give it to a professional economist while taking a less senior ministry for himself. The report said Lapid told Likud officials that he did not have the skills to be finance minister or defense minister.

Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman has insisted on Netanyahu holding the Foreign Ministry for him until he is cleared of charges in his ongoing corruption trials. He continued his recent attacks on Lapid on Sunday.

“Lapid is wanted in the next government, as long as he knows he will be a senior coalition partner and not the acting prime minister,” Liberman said at a Knesset press conference.

“As long as he realizes that, he is wanted.”

Liberman has gotten closer in recent weeks with Shas after initially calling for a government without haredim. Bennett, meanwhile, condemned recent statements by Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef against Bayit Yehudi and Lapid.

“The statements of Shas against our party and Lapid are unnecessary,” Bennett said. “I don’t take such statements personally. But there is no monopoly on the Torah. The world of Torah is no less important to me than it is to Shas. You can learn Torah and serve in the army and work.”

Yosef on Saturday evening criticized the Yesh Atid leader as “contemptible” and a “yeshiva hater.” His comments come amid coalition negotiations in which Lapid’s insistence on increasing the haredi army draft is at odds with Shas’s position.

Lapid is not the first political opponent that Yosef has lambasted during his weekly Saturday evening sermon.

During the election campaign, Yosef lashed out at Bayit Yehudi, calling it a “house for goyim [non-Jews]” that religious Jews should not vote for.

In the Army Radio interview, Bennett blamed his party falling from 15 seats in the polls to 12 seats in the election on two public opinion makers who he said told him they worked to bring down his party: Channel 2 journalist Amnon Abramovich and Muli Segev, who produces the satire show Eretz Nehederet (Wonderful Country).

Abramovich aired a report before the election that painted Bayit Yehudi candidate Jeremy Gimpel as an extremist and took statements he made about the Temple Mount out of context. Eretz Nehederet portrayed Bennett as a latent extremist.

Lahav Harkov contributed to this report
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