In shouting match, Bennett derides Yisrael Beytenu MKs as Liberman’s ‘puppies’
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Bennett also says he loses sleep over 'apathy' of US Jews toward Judaism and Israel

In shouting match, Bennett derides Yisrael Beytenu MKs as Liberman’s ‘puppies’

Coalition lawmakers go head-to-head in heated Knesset session that also sees education minister dismiss Netanyahu's 'childish' criticism

Marissa Newman is The Times of Israel political correspondent.

Jewish Home chairman Naftali Bennett, speaks during a party faction meeting at the Knesset, on May 15, 2017. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Jewish Home chairman Naftali Bennett, speaks during a party faction meeting at the Knesset, on May 15, 2017. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett, Israel’s education minister, on Monday sparred angrily with Yisrael Beytenu lawmakers in the Knesset plenum, accusing their party leader, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, of sending them like “little puppies” to attack him.

In signs of coalition strain, Bennett also dismissed criticism by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as “a little childish,” while openly taunting the right-wing Yisrael Beytenu MKs.

Coalition partners Bennett and Liberman have been trading barbs for months, with the defense minister on Monday deriding Bennett for criticizing Netanyahu over the latter’s refusal to rule out a Palestinian state in talks with the Trump administration. Liberman also accused nationalist-religious leaders of spreading “incitement” and “libels” over the closure of a pre-military yeshiva, Or Etzion, which the Defense Ministry maintained was not a political move and was approved in November 2015.

During a Question Time session in the plenum, a query about the rescheduling of the Lag B’Omer holiday vacation in schools quickly spiraled into a screaming match between Yisrael Beytenu MK Oded Forer and the education minister.

“Liberman sent you like little puppies: ‘Go bite,’” Bennett said dismissively, drawing furious yelling by Forer and fellow Yisrael Beytenu MK Yulia Malinovsky.

He quickly retracted the characterization, but continued to mock the lawmakers.

“Yisrael Beytenu is very combative today,” the minister taunted. “Is it possible they received an order from above?”

He also goaded the defense minister personally, saying, “Have you assassinated [Hamas leader Ismail] Haniyeh today?” The question referred to repeated promises by Liberman last year that if he were appointed defense minister, he would assassinate Haniyeh within 48 hours if the Hamas leader failed to return the bodies of IDF soldiers killed in the 2014 Gaza war.

“In the IDF, the officer stands in front, he doesn’t send his soldiers [ahead of him],” Bennett told Liberman’s party members, urging them to “save their combativeness for Hamas in Gaza rather than for religious Zionism.”

The spat only died down after Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein intervened.

Yisrael Beytenu leader and Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman leads a faction meeting in the Israeli parliament on May 15 2017. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)
Yisrael Beytenu leader and Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman leads a faction meeting in the Israeli parliament on May 15 2017. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

Characterizing the prime minister’s recent statements against him as “a little childish,” the education minister said that every time he expresses his opposition to Netanyahu’s diplomacy, the prime minister attacks him and accuses him of being left-wing, among other things.

Bennett referred to a Likud statement on Saturday that implied the education minister has sent Jewish schoolchildren to convert to Islam, after footage emerged of Israeli students on a class trip to a mosque bowing inside the building.

“Come on, really?” Bennett said incredulously.

Ahead of US President Donald Trump’s visit next week, Bennett has stepped up his criticism of Netanyahu, warning that Jerusalem must present its own vision for the future of the Middle East, or risk the country’s fate being decided by others.

“We cannot continue to run a ‘bunker’ policy, or Israel’s fate will be decided by others,” Bennett said on Saturday.

Referencing Netanyahu’s seminal 2009 address at Bar-Ilan University, in which the prime minister expressed support for two states, Bennett claimed the speech and its acknowledgement of Palestinian national aspirations had “brought upon us boycotts, terrorism and a serious demographic threat. It is now time to revoke it.”

Bennett’s comments have been rejected by Netanyahu’s Likud, which accused him of parroting the prime minister’s policies and took aim at his handling of the Education Ministry.

During Monday’s Question Time session, Bennett — who also holds the Diaspora Ministry portfolio — said he supports the compromise that would see a a mixed-gender prayer plaza built at the Western Wall, but will go along with whatever the coalition decides on the matter.

“I support implementing the Western Wall deal. Certainly, if the government decides otherwise, I am subject to coalition [restrictions],” he said.

While throwing his support behind the stalled agreement, on ice since January 2016 amid protests from ultra-Orthodox lawmakers, the education minister said he was behind building the platform at Robinson’s Arch four years ago as an interim compromise.

Bennett said he “loses sleep” over the “apathy” of American Jews toward Judaism and Israel. He said his ministry is investing millions to strengthen Jewish identity in the Diaspora, which, he says, is the State of Israel’s third most pressing priority, behind its security and social cohesion.

“We are losing millions of Jews to assimilation,” he said.

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