Facing Netanyahu ultimatum, Bennett semi-apologizes

Jewish Home leader says he never intended to insult PM, but claims his opposition has killed idea of settler minority living under Palestinian rule

Economy Minister Naftali Bennett addresses the INSS in Tel Aviv, Tuesday, January 28, 2014 (screen capture)
Economy Minister Naftali Bennett addresses the INSS in Tel Aviv, Tuesday, January 28, 2014 (screen capture)

Economy and Trade Minister Naftali Bennett on Wednesday apologized publicly to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for any offense caused by comments he made castigating the Israeli leadership’s policies on the Palestinians in recent days. But he reiterated his opposition to the idea of settlers living under Palestinian rule in the West Bank after a peace deal, and claimed his vociferous objections had killed the idea.

“If the prime minister was hurt, that was not the intention,” Bennett said at a conference at the Dead Sea. Earlier, sources in Netanyahu’s office had given Bennett until Sunday’s 10 a.m. cabinet meeting to apologize for his statements.

Netanyahu accepted Bennett’s apology, having had a letter dismissing Bennett ready in his office, Israel Radio reported. Likud sources were quoted saying Bennett had capitulated to Netanyahu’s ultimatum.

Later Wednesday, underlining the ongoing tension, Bennett said he had “clarified [my earlier comments] but not apologized. As far as I’m concerned, this is the end of the matter, but the ball is now in the prime minister’s court.” Bennett added that his goal had been to quash the idea of settlers living under Palestinian sovereignty, and would “take a public stance against other such bad ideas in the future.”

Objecting to news first reported by The Times of Israel that the prime minister was insisting that Jewish West Bank settlers be given the choice to remain in place and live under Palestinian rule or relocate to areas under Israeli sovereign rule, Bennett had said Tuesday that leaving settlers in a Palestinian state was unthinkable because, among other reasons, it would represent a reversal of Zionism and they would be killed. In an earlier Facebook post, he wrote that “whoever advocates for the idea of Jewish life in Israel under Palestinian rule is undermining our ability to sit in Tel Aviv.”

During an address to a conference at the Dead Sea on Wednesday, Bennett said that “there are those who are trying to turn a substantive conversation about the future of our land and our security into a personal attack that never was.”

“I respect Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his leadership under difficult circumstances, support him when necessary and criticize him as necessary, and that’s my obligation,” said Bennett.

The Jewish Home leader stuck to his guns on the issue of Israeli settlers living in a future Palestinian state, however, saying that “imposing Palestinian rule on Israeli citizens is dangerous, and my obligation was to drop this idea immediately from the agenda, and this idea indeed dropped.”

At the INSS conference on Tuesday Bennett had said that the reason why there could be no Jewish minority in a future Palestinian state was “because [the Palestinians] will kill them. And do you know how I know this? Because it has already happened.”

He also warned ominously that “our forefathers and our descendants will not forgive an Israeli leader who gives up our country and divides our capital.”

Speaking at the same INSS conference on Wednesday, President Shimon Peres criticized Bennett’s comments, referring to them as unnecessary scare tactics.

“I’ve heard the arguments. What is this fear attacking us?” Peres responded. “They’ll kill Jews? Today? We should have had this fear in 1948 when we didn’t have a single cannon, tank, and plane, against seven Arab countries. What is this intimidation and scaring? What is their fear? What happened?”

Bennett’s attacks on the notion of settlers staying under Palestinian rule have elicited a flurry of responses from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. Likud MK Tzipi Hotovely Wednesday defended Bennett’s right to express his opinion on the prime minister’s plan, and backed the economy and trade minister’s opposition to relinquishing territory to the Palestinians.

“When a thought arises that is so immoral like leaving settlers under Palestinian sovereignty, something that is so opposed to our basic principles, that we should protect ourselves, and this is our birthright, and we have no intention of dividing it with any other nation. Therefore I expect that ministers will express themselves against these ideas, even if they are simply ideas,” Hotovely said.

But Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz, a Likud hawk, encouraged Bennett to retract his statements. “Naftali, my friend, precisely because of our similar views, I urge you to apologize to the prime minister,” he wrote on Facebook. “This argument of where Jews will live in a future agreement is a futile argument.”

Former opposition leader and left-wing Labor MK Shelly Yachimovich slammed the spat as “ridiculous and feigned,” and described the tussle as a fight for right-wing leadership.

“These are two right-wingers, politically and economically, who are arguing over dominance of the right, and nothing more,” Yachimovich said. “Their statements attest that they do not want and do not believe in a settlement and compromise, and certainly do not want peace.”

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