Bennett lights fire under coalition

By Anshel Pfeffer, February 6, 2014
Bennett: ultimatum (Photo: Flash 90)

Bennett: ultimatum (Photo: Flash 90)

Irael’s governing coalition has cracked and teetered in recent weeks but somehow remained intact.

This week, however, Economics Minister Naftali Bennett issued his strongest threat so far to leave the government.

Speaking on Tuesday about the US “framework” agreement due to form the starting point of the peace talks, he said: “I have told the prime minister — bring any document and we will judge it. If it doesn’t fit with our values, we won’t remain in the government.”

Two weeks ago, Habayit Hayehudi leader Mr Bennett was forced to apologise after attacking a proposal by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that Israeli settlers could be allowed to remain in the West Bank under Palestinian sovereignty.

In response, Mr Netanyahu threatened to fire him from his cabinet. The departure of Habayit Hayehudi’s 12 MKs would leave the Netanyahu government without a parliamentary majority and force the prime minister to invite either Labour or Shas to join the coalition.

Such a move could also spark a split within Likud between the more right-wing elements of the party and those prepared to support the conditions for continued negotiations with the PA.

Mr Bennett — who is due to visit London next week — was speaking in the wake of an angry exchange of words between Jerusalem and Washington, precipitated by remarks by US Secretary of State John Kerry at the Munich security conference on Saturday.

Mr Kerry warned of “an increasing delegitimisation campaign that has been building up” against Israel and “talk of boycotts and other kinds of things”.

Despite his spokeswoman’s attempt to clarify that his “only reference to a boycott was a description of actions undertaken by others that he has always opposed”, Israeli ministers responded angrily.

Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz said on Sunday that the
Secretary of State’s remark was “offensive, unreasonable and unacceptable” and that he was trying to force Israel to negotiate “with a gun to its head”.

Mr Bennett accused Mr Kerry of serving as “a mouthpiece” for antisemitic threats and his party colleague, Construction Minister Uri Ariel, said that most Israelis no longer saw Mr Kerry as a “fair mediator”.

Mr Netanyahu said at the start of the weekly cabinet meeting that the boycott attempts were “immoral, unjustified and will not achieve their objective”. However, he refrained from mentioning Mr Kerry, neither criticising nor defending him.

The Obama administration mainly remonstrated with its Israeli counterparts in private but on Tuesday, White House National Security Advisor Susan Rice rebuked the Israelis on Twitter saying that “personal attacks in Israel” against Mr Kerry were “totally unfounded and unacceptable”.

For now it does not seem that the diplomatic tension between the US and Israel will escalate into a full-blown crisis and Mr Netanyahu is still expected to meet President Barack Obama early next month when he visits Washington for an Aipac conference.

Mr Kerry is scheduled to arrive in the region in a couple of weeks in what will be his 11th visit since becoming Secretary of State a year ago.

In his visit, he is expected to present to both sides, Israelis and Palestinians, with the “framework” agreement for a two-state solution that will serve as the basis for negotiations in the coming months.

A rare supporter of Mr Kerry in the Israeli establishment this week was President Shimon Peres.

On Tuesday he said: “The state secretary has harnessed himself to the labour of peace, with both sides’ approval. We thank him for his efforts and strengthen his hands, expecting positive results. Kerry is not coming here to struggle with us.”

Last updated: 1:03pm, February 6 2014