Outgoing-Defense Minister Naftali Bennett has launched the first salvo in the right-wing battle against Palestinian statehood under the Trump peace initiative, as he vowed stiff opposition and declared the end of the unified right-wing bloc.
It will remain the first salvo whether Bennett become the “fighting opposition,” as he has phrased it, or enters the coalition at the last minute.
As the clocks ticks toward annexation under the Trump plan, opposition to the Palestinian statehood component of the initiative has been gaining steam.
Support for Palestinian statehood “is a point of no return. One can’t recognize and then un-recognize Palestinian statehood. It’s like un-cooking scrambled eggs,” Bennett told reporters on Monday.
He clarified specifically that this included the Palestinian component of the Trump plan, even if in doing so Israel would lose US support for sovereignty.
“I will oppose anything that allows for acceptance or recognition of a Palestinian state,” Bennett said.
On the international stage, US President Donald Trump’s peace plan is squarely identified with both the Israeli and American Right. The battle has been painted as Left vs Right, as the plan is heavily identified with settlement annexation. It is presumed that the plan, first unveiled in January, would destroy any hope of Palestinian statehood.
But surprisingly, in Israel, it is also about to become a battle between the centrist Right and the hard Right, which have already disconnected annexation from the Trump plan and have rebranded the US document as one that will exclusively lead to Palestinian statehood.
It does not matter that at issue is a demilitarized Palestinian state on 70% of the West Bank with only a minimal footprint in the outer edges of Jerusalem. It is the most minimal offer any US president has ever made to the Palestinians.
For a hard-line right-winger like Bennett, any statehood offer poses an existential threat. On Monday, Bennett spoke clearly of his intention to battle the Trump plan’s vision for a Palestinian state from the opposition.
In doing so, he made public the growing tensions on the Right, which have simmered over the last months, and reopened the battle between himself and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for the leadership of the Right.
Bennett laid the blame for dividing the right wing squarely on Netanyahu, charging him with not wanting his Yamina Party in the government and for trampling on the expressed desires of right-wing voters.
“We were faithful to the right-wing bloc and not to a specific person. It is true that Netanyahu stood at the head of the Right bloc. What Netanyahu did dismantled the right-wing bloc. Once he did so, he did so,” Bennett said.
Now that Netanyahu has broken the right-wing bloc, Bennett explained, there is no reason why he has to abide by it.
“Once it’s splintered, it’s splintered,” he said, adding that “there is no bloc.”
On one hand, Bennett’s position comes as no surprise. As a former Yesha Council director-general, Bennett has been an outspoken opponent of Palestinian statehood even before he entered politics. He has never wavered on this matter and never minced words.
But this time around, Bennett spoke as the head of the clearly identified right-wing party Yamina, which at this point is about to exit a right-wing government after a bitter 15-month election cycle to beat out the left wing.
One would have expected Bennett to jump through hoops to be a part of this particular coalition, which is likely to go down in history as the government that applied sovereignty to the settlements.
As one of the first high-level politicians to speak in support of annexation, it was presumed Bennett would want to take a well-earned victory lap with his colleagues when such sovereignty is applied.
His pending departure is almost akin to an actor playing the hero in a play, who fails to stay on the stage for the climactic lines.
BENNETT WAS almost at this juncture, once before.
During the first round of elections in April 2019, angry voters failed to give him and former justice minister Ayelet Shaked enough support to send them to the Knesset.
For a moment it seemed like a strange black hole had opened up within right-wing politics. At the time, Netanyahu had first started to speak of annexation. Yet here were the two most vocal annexation proponents, supposedly heading home.
That time around the issues all appeared to be about personal politics and ego. There is an attempt now as well to spin it the same way and reduce this to a battle about ministerial seats. This exit, however, is not some form of Groundhog Day, where the drama recycles itself.
Frantic calls from the Right, including from settler leaders in the Likud, for Bennett to stay are in some ways a recognition that what is at stake here is real issues, which makes his exit to the opposition suddenly so natural. Chief among them is opposition to a Palestinian state. Those who have appealed to Bennett want him to block it from within the government, not from without, and maintain the appearance of right-wing unity.
In the first surprised shocking moments in January, when the Trump plan so openly endorsed sovereignty, there was a euphoric moment of unity on the Right.
But almost immediately, the other shoe dropped, as the hard Right woke up to the cold reality that Trump’s plan also spoke of a demilitarized Palestinian state.
The issue split the settler movement and the Right. Hard-liners vacillated between euphoria and mourning. The split was patched over, as the Right pushed forward to electoral victory.
If Bennett makes good on his exit threat, it will rip the Band-Aid off those fissures. Bennett has always been the bad boy of the Right when it comes to diplomatic issues regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Bennett held his ground both during the Obama years and again in January and through the election period. It was presumed until only recently that Bennett would find a way to stay in this government as well. It seemed that Netanyahu’s pivot in the direction of Blue and White and Labor, rather than heading to yet a fourth election, opened the door for Bennett to remain, given that his votes would no longer be needed.
Bennett has pledged to support sovereignty from the opposition and it is unlikely he can rob Netanyahu of his moment in history, should annexation be applied to the settlements.
But if Netanyahu had dreamed of both sovereignty and the mantle of a right-wing leadership, Bennett has now begun the campaign to snatch that title from him from the opposition.
It’s a campaign that would be more muted from the government. But even if he is in the coalition, Bennett would still press forward in his opposition to Palestinian statehood, having already taken credit for blocking it under Obama.
The question for Netanyahu moving forward will be, as difficult as it might have been to pursue Palestinian statehood with Bennett in the government, can he afford him in the opposition with so much at stake?