Tensions grow ahead of Netanyahu-Bennett meet

5 year boycott of PM's former top aide set to end; Bayit Yehudi MKs fear PM will exclude him from coalition as gesture to Obama.

Bayit Yehudi leader Naftali Bennett 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem / The Jerusalem Post)
Bayit Yehudi leader Naftali Bennett 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem / The Jerusalem Post)
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu will hold a longawaited meeting with his former chief of staff, Bayit Yehudi leader Naftali Bennett, next week amid increasing tension between the leaders of the two right-wing parties.
At press time, Bennett had not received an invitation to meet Netanyahu, hours after the Likud released a statement saying the prime minister would hold one-on-one talks at the beginning of next week with the leaders of Bayit Yehudi and the haredi parties, in an effort to form a broad national-unity government.
Bennett is the only party leader among the 12 in the Knesset who has not met with Netanyahu since the January 22 election. The only contact between them was a quick phone call in which Netanyahu congratulated Bennett on winning 12 seats; and a limp, forced handshake in the Knesset after Bennett was sworn in. Netanyahu instead sent his No. 2 in Likud Beytenu, Avigdor Liberman, to meet with the Bayit Yehudi leader.
Netanyahu has not met with Bennett since 2008, when the latter quit his job, as the thenopposition leader’s chief of staff, following repeated disputes with Netanyahu’s wife, Sara.
The Bayit Yehudi chairman has made a point of treating Netanyahu with respect, tweeting that he appreciates the tremendous weight on the prime minister’s shoulders and wishes him success for the good of all of Israel.
But Bennett’s associates have complained that Netanyahu has shown disrespect by calling Ta’al leader Ahmed Tibi before he called Bennett, and devoting Thursday afternoon to a meeting with Meretz chairwoman Zehava Gal-On, who will definitely not join the government, rather than an expected coalition partner with 12 Knesset seats.
Bayit Yehudi officials said Netanyahu was continuing to act as if the election had not yet taken place, following a campaign in which the Likud in general, and the prime minister, repeatedly attacked Bennett and his Knesset slate.
Although the Likud did release a statement two weeks ago saying that Bayit Yehudi would be included in the coalition, there are still those in Bennett’s party who are concerned that Netanyahu will exclude him as a gesture to United States President Barack Obama, or low-ball Bayit Yehudi with an offer Bennett cannot accept.
In an effort to improve Bayit Yehudi’s negotiating position, the party has been coordinating its strategy with Yair Lapid’s party. But its officials have denied reaching understandings with Yesh Atid that both parties would either join the coalition or go to the opposition.
Netanyahu met with Lapid for two-and-a-half hours on Thursday at Netanyahu’s official residence in Jerusalem. Both sides described the meeting as very good and reported that progress was made on building the coalition.
The leaders of the Knesset’s two largest parties discussed how to equalize the burden of IDF service, efforts to prevent Iran’s nuclearization, and the upcoming visit to Israel of US President Barack Obama. They reportedly also discussed portfolios, though neither side would confirm that.
Bayit Yehudi MK Uri Ariel revealed on Israel Radio that Yesh Atid had made serious concessions on its plan for drafting yeshiva students, but he said much still needed to get done to bridge the gaps on the issue among the potential coalition partners.
“If Lapid doesn’t compromise, he can stay in the opposition,” Shas chairman Eli Yishai said.
“If he doesn’t understand that the nation cannot be torn apart, the prime minister will have to decide whether we, or they, will be in or out.”
Following recent attacks from Shas, Bennett urged the haredi party on Thursday to stop attacking him and instead work with him to integrate haredim into service.
“I represent a very large public, both religious and not, and I cannot accept, nor do I understand, the meaning of these attacks,” Bennett wrote on his Facebook page.
He added that Bayit Yehudi had been working “to find a way to integrate the haredim into the Israeli economy and into service to the State of Israel, without harming the world of Torah.
“I’ve been meeting with dozens of haredim... and I believe that if we remove the conversation of hatred we could finally solve the problem,” he said.
On Thursday morning, the Shas-affiliated newspaper Yom LeYom attacked Bennett in an editorial for siding with Lapid in promoting equality of service, accusing him of trying to destroy the world of Torah.
An official in the paper said the harsh criticism in the editorial received the approval of the party’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. The editorial said that Bennett, “the man with the kippa the size of an eye demonstrates just how much this kippa is worth – half a shekel.”
Following the publication of the editorial, Yishai called Bennett to apologize for the accusations in the Shas mouthpiece, saying the party leadership did not approve the views expressed in the editorial.
Bayit Yehudi MK Rabbi Eliahu Ben-Dahan slammed the paper, saying “there isn’t a single word of truth” written in the editorial.
“These words constitute slander against God-fearing men, who love Israel and the Jewish people, and who can definitely teach Shas a lesson or two about values and about how to combine army service with Torah study,” Ben-Dahan said.Yaara Shalom contributed to this report.