Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu canceled a meeting with Bayit Yehudi leader Naftali Bennett Sunday to protest the latter’s recent behavior that Netanyahu’s associates called “childish.”
Bennett threatened publicly Thursday night that if any Israeli Arabs prisoners were released in an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, he would remove Bayit Yehudi from Netanyahu’s governing coalition.
He upped the ante in an interview with Channel 2 Sunday night when he said the country had survived 65 years without him as a minister and would continue to exist afterward.
Sources close to Netanyahu responded by daring Bennett to quit. They accused him of harming the country by unnecessarily flexing his muscles in an effort to obtain positive headlines.
“After Bennett insisted on Israel freeing murderers rather than freezing construction, we are waiting to see what his daily threat will be,” a source close to Netanyahu said. “He needs to be reminded that he is not being kept in the government by force.”
A Likud source went further in attacking Bennett, saying had he not threatened Netanyahu, first privately then publicly, a deal would have been reached and Israeli agent Jonathan Pollard would have been on his way to Jerusalem in time for the Passover Seder.
But a source close to Netanyahu said that charge was inaccurate, because there were other problems with the sides involved in making the deal with Israel.
Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman told Yediot Aharonot Sunday that Bennett should not be burning bridges or initiating elections. Liberman apparently coordinated his assault on the Bayit Yehudi leader with Netanyahu.
“Whoever wants to quit should quit, not threaten,” he said. “I doubt Bennett will carry out his threat. I see a big gap between his declarations and his actions. His threats don’t move us.”
Liberman revealed that he had granted his ministers freedom of conscience to vote on the deal, which would enable it to pass. He also announced in the interview that Yisrael Beytenu would run on its own in the next general election and not on a joint ticket with Likud.
The fiercest attack on Bennett Sunday came from Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, who said Bennett represented the extremist youths who attacked IDF soldiers in the West Bank community of Yitzhar.
“There are those in the government who aren’t interested in peace and would prevent us from having a diplomatic process,” she told Ynet. “Surrendering to Bennett is a victory for Yitzhar over Zionism.”
Bennett responded that Livni had “brought shame to the State of Israel” by how she handled the negotiations with the Palestinians. His associates said Livni was “obsessively stuck to her seat in the government.”
The economy and trade minister said he had tried to work out a compromise with Netanyahu by which the Israeli Arab citizens released would renounce their citizenship and be exiled to the West Bank. But the prime minister said such steps were not feasible.
Bennett’s number two in Bayit Yehudi, Construction and Housing Minister Uri Ariel, told Channel 10 that the chance of an early election being initiated due to the current crisis was 60 percent.
“I don’t want elections,” Bennett said. “We are doing important things in the government. But someone has to set a red line. The ball is now in the prime minister’s court. The prime minister could tell the Palestinians that Israeli Arabs won’t be released.”
Bennett reached out to Israeli Arabs in a letter in Arabic on Sunday in which he explained why they should oppose the deal. He warned them against putting their fate in the hands of the Palestinians Authority and acting as a fifth column against Israel.
Israel Radio disclosed Sunday that Bennett’s letter in Arabic was full of mistakes. Arab leaders called the letter “disrespectful.”