Netanyahu and Bennett.
(photo credit: REUTERS,MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reprimanded his education minister, Naftali Bennett, on Monday after the latter bragged to Army Radio earlier in the day that he had "put a bullet between [the prime minister's] eyes."
Bennett, the leader of the religious Zionist Bayit Yehudi party, said that he had managed to get Netanyahu to back down from previous public statements indicating that he would consider "unilateral measures" in Israel's dealings with the Palestinians.
Last week, Netanyahu hinted that he could pursue unilateral moves in the West Bank in the absence of a peace process with the Palestinians.
He spoke in advance of US Secretary of State John Kerry’s expected trip to Israel, during which the two men will meet for the second time since earlier this month, when they spoke for three hours in Washington.
The prime minister is under pressure from the United States to come up with a plan to preserve the option of a two-state solution in the absence of a renewed peace process. The US also is looking to him to take steps to ease life for Palestinians in the West Bank, despite the wave of Palestinian attacks against Israelis.
At the Fourth Annual Jerusalem Post Diplomatic Conference in Jerusalem on Wednesday, the paper’s senior correspondent, Herb Keinon, spoke with the prime minister about the stalled diplomatic process and asked point blank, “Are you considering unilateral moves?” “Well, unilateral moves in security and economy are there and we are doing them,” Netanyahu said, adding: “I prefer bilateral. I prefer negotiated moves. But in the aspects of security and the economy there is room for it. Politically, I think it is more complicated than that and not desirable.”
Keinon then asked: “If things stay stymied politically, is there something you will initiate?” to which Netanyahu responded: “Well, there all sorts of unilateral moves in all sorts of directions. Wait and see. And they are not necessarily in the direction you think.”
“Can you be a little bit more specific?” asked Keinon.
“No,” the prime minister responded.
It’s the second time this month Netanyahu has made statements about unilateralism.
He came under fire for comments he made about possible one-sided moves during a public interview at the Center for American Progress in Washington, DC, when former Jerusalem Post editor-in-chief David Makovsky, who is now a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, asked Netanyahu what his plan is to preserve Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.
Netanyahu responded by stating, “Unilateralism works less well than a negotiated solution. The main problem that we have is the acceptance of the principle that Israel will take care of security in the areas west of the Jordan.”
He later returned to the idea when he said, “Unilateralism, I suppose that is possible, but it would have to meet Israeli security criteria. It would require a broader international understanding than exists now.”
On Wednesday, during his conversation with Keinon, the prime minister spoke of the frustration of not being able to negotiate with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, despite repeated offers to sit down and talk with him.
According to Army Radio, Bennett told a group of Bayit Yehudi lawmakers that "Bibi (Netanyahu's nickname) retracted his previous statements about unilateral measures, only after I put a bullet between his eyes."
The news angered Netanyahu, prompting the premier to phone Bennett for a censure.
"The quotes attributed to you are inappropriate and they completely contradict the facts," Netanyahu is reported to have said to Bennett.
Likud officials slammed the education minister for the remarks, saying that "he has quite an imagination, yet he also lacks awareness as to where he resides in the decision-making process."
"There's no doubt that this was not the best way to characterize a dangerous idea," a Bennett aide told Army Radio. "Bennett will continue to fight against unilateral withdrawals."
When asked by Army Radio about the remarks, Bennett said: "I'm responsible for Israel's security, and I will not comment on private conversations. There will be no unilateral withdrawals as long as I'm in the government."