Bennett and Netanyahu both declare victory in spat

Sources in economy minister’s party insist he didn’t really apologize; Likud officials claim Bennett scrambled to make amends

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

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 did not actually apologize Wednesday to Benjamin Netanyahu for his comments castigating the prime minister’s policies on the Palestinians, the Jewish Home party was insisting on Thursday. Netanyahu had demanded the apology and threatened to fire Bennett if he failed to produce it.

“He simply wanted to express his regret if the prime minister was offended,” sources in the party told Maariv, “since protecting the honor of the prime minister is important to Bennett.”

The spat, the most vocal to plague Netanyahu’s coalition since its founding last March, revolved around Bennett’s reaction to a statement by an official close to Netanyahu — first reported by The Times of Israel — to the effect that the prime minister was insisting that Jewish West Bank settlers be given the choice to remain in their homes under Palestinian rule.

Bennett had said on 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 apparent thinly veiled reference to Netanyahu, he added that history “won’t forgive” an Israeli leader who relinquishes parts of the Land of Israel under a peace deal.

On Thursday, the Jewish Home officials also denied that Housing and Construction Minister Uri Ariel had mediated between the sides, as Likud sources were claiming. Bennett, they insisted, had decided on his own to issue the statement and worded it himself.

Meanwhile Likud officials claimed a decisive victory, saying they were surprised at how quickly Bennett’s statement came out. Sources in Netanyahu’s office had given Bennett until Sunday morning’s cabinet meeting to apologize for his statements, and said they had even readied a letter of dismissal should he fail to come through.

The Jewish Home leader’s reaction to the demand for an apology came 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,” he said.

But the Jewish Home leader stuck to his guns on the issue of Israeli settlers living in a future Palestinian state, 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.”

“If the prime minister was hurt, that was not the intention,” he added.

Netanyahu accepted Bennett’s apparent apology, and Likud sources were quoted as saying he had capitulated to the prime minister’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.”

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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