A perfect moment to get rid of Bennett, if the PM wanted to

A perfect moment to get rid of Bennett, if the PM wanted to

The Jewish Home leader might well quit of his own accord if Netanyahu takes substantive steps toward Palestinian statehood. If...

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Economy Minister Naftali Bennett during a Knesset plenum session, July 29, 2013. (photo credit: Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Economy Minister Naftali Bennett during a Knesset plenum session, July 29, 2013. (photo credit: Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu never really liked having Naftali Bennett in his government. They don’t talk much about it these days, but since the two politicians’ paths first crossed in 2006, when Bennett served as Netanyahu’s chief of staff, their personal relationship has been less than rosy. Now, as an unintended side effect of the current row over his idea to leave settlers in a Palestinian state, the prime minister can finally get rid of Bennett.

It would seem there has never been a more opportune time for Netanyahu to fire Bennett and reshuffle the coalition, as Israel heads toward the showdown in the nine-month peace negotiations. The question is whether he really wants to.

Let’s remember that Netanyahu needed a long time to assemble the current coalition after last January’s elections. He really didn’t want to include Bennett’s far-right Jewish Home party. He much preferred his more “natural partners” — the ultra-Orthodox Shas and United Torah Judaism. But Bennett forged an alliance with “bro” Yair Lapid and his 19-seat strong Yesh Atid party, and they told Netanyahu it was either both parties or neither of them. When he did the coalition arithmetic, the prime minister had no choice.

But the Lapid-Bennett partnership has been cracking in recent months. “Lapid is a dictator,” Bennett was quoted as saying last weekend, deriding the lack of democracy within Yesh Atid and further fanning an ongoing crisis between two freshman ministers who no longer seem to see eye-to-eye on much. As the current US-brokered Israeli-Palestinian peace talks enter a critical phase, with US Secretary of State John Kerry about to present a “framework” position paper that will call for serious concessions from Israel, that Bennett-Lapid rift presents Netanyahu with the perfect opportunity to dump Bennett and his crew of two-state refuseniks.

The prime minister knows that he will not be able to move toward an agreement with the Palestinians — or even purport to move toward an agreement — as long as Jewish Home is part of his government. Shas and/or the Labor Party, on the other hand, are more than ready to fill any void. They would present a whole different set of headaches for Netanyahu, but still, as American and international pressure increases over the Palestinian issue, Netanyahu would rather have Labor’s nice new leader Isaac Herzog at his coalition table over Bennett any day.

So along comes an official in the Prime Minister’s Office, who tells The Times of Israel on Sunday that Netanyahu intends to insist that Jews who find themselves on the other side of a future border under Palestinian sovereignty be given the option to stay. At first, some analysts figure that Netanyahu is launching a trial balloon, trying to see what the settlers and the international community think about the idea, while being pretty certain that the Palestinians will reject it. In this analysis, the prime minister could always have disavowed the plan as a case of unauthorized comments made by an anonymous aide.

But Netanyahu hasn’t disavowed it — at least not as of this writing. He had every opportunity to do so in a high-profile address to the INSS think tank on Tuesday night, but chose instead to emphasize that Israel does not want to rule over the Palestinians or to absorb Palestinians into Israel — contrary to Bennett’s West Bank policies.

True, he has also not publicly confirmed that he proposes to insist settlers be given the right to live in future Palestine. But sources close to the prime minister have defended the idea, including by saying it was meant to embarrass the Palestinians; if Bennett hadn’t so loudly denounced the notion, those sources say, Israel intended to highlight to the watching world the Palestinians’ anti-Semitic requirement to keep Palestine judenrein.

Bennett’s opposition to the settlers-in-Palestine idea has been not only loud but lengthy. He first denounced it as “very dangerous,” saying it “reflects an irrationality of values.” And then on Tuesday, just before Netanyahu’s speech, Bennett delivered a scathing attack on the policy at the same INSS conference. Leaving settlers under Palestinian rule would be a “U-turn on Zionism,” Bennett declared. He also warned, rather ominously given Israel’s dire history of politically inspired violence, “Our forefathers and our descendants will not forgive an Israeli leader who gives up our country and divides our capital.”

And so it was that on Wednesday morning, Bennett and his aides woke up to the news that unnamed aides to Netanyahu were now demanding an apology — or else.

“Bennett was given a message that he has to apologize clearly and unequivocally or there will be a price to pay,” one source in the Prime Minister’s Office told The Times of Israel. “No one will teach Netanyahu what it means to love Israel or to defend it. With all Bennett’s complaints, it’s not clear why he’s clinging to his seat in the cabinet.”

Bennett did not immediately back down. But he did send a number of his party colleagues to try to lower the flames. Housing and Construction Minister Uri Ariel, for instance, told Army Radio that he was “dealing with the issue” and believed the “crisis” could be overcome through dialogue.

Later Wednesday, the word from the PMO got tougher: If Bennett didn’t apologize by Sunday, he’d be out.

Whether planned or not, this dispute over the settlements — or, as Bennett would prefer to characterize it, the very meaning of Zionism — could serve Netanyahu as a highly effective pretext for getting rid of the new darling of the right. By firing Bennett now, for disrespecting the prime minister, Netanyahu could deny the Jewish Home leader the possibility of dramatically walking out a few weeks from now, as a martyr to the nationalist cause who just couldn’t stay in a government that was taking steps toward Palestinian statehood.

And by the same token, if he doesn’t fire Bennett, maybe that will indicate that Netanyahu doesn’t actually intend to take such steps.

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