Education Minister Naftali Bennett met recently with members of US President-elect Donald Trump’s team, likely prompting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to issue his ban on ministers directly contacting the incoming president’s staff, sources said Tuesday.
Bennett reportedly urged that the future Trump administration look at alternatives to the two-state solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including his own plan to annex some parts of the West Bank while giving Palestinians increased autonomy in others areas of the territory.
Bennett’s Jewish Home party confirmed on Tuesday that the minister held two sit-down meetings with “Trump officials from various levels.”
Party sources added that it was very likely that it was when Netanyahu found out about the meetings that he decided to lay down his blanket ban on ministers talking with Trump officials.
Bennett, who has been visiting the US in his capacity as Diaspora minister, was on his way back to Israel and was expected to address the matter during a Wednesday conference he was scheduled to attend, the sources said.
His meetings were first reported by the Haaretz daily.
OnMonday, Netanyahu’s cabinet secretary issued a directive banning ministers from holding direct talks with any members of Trump’s staff and instructing that all contact must be either through the Prime Minister’s Office or the Israeli Embassy in Washington.
The clamp down came in the wake of Bennett’s meetings the day before and after the publication of a letter on Saturday written by Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel (Jewish Home) to Stephen Bannon on the Breitbart website. Ariel thanked Bannon for his support of and friendship with Israel.
It is not known if any other members of Israel’s government or the Knesset have made contact with Trump. A source from the Yesh Atid party said Yair Lapid, who has fashioned himself a sort of shadow foreign minister and met with a number of foreign dignitaries, was holding off on contacting the Trump team “until an appropriate time.”
However on Tuesday, Lapid called on Trump and US President Barack Obama to condemn “expressions of Nazi sympathy and fascism as well as rising anti-Semitism,” following the publication of a video showing white nationalist figures making Nazi salutes and praising Trump.
Bannon, who was appointed as Trump’s chief strategist, has been roundly condemned by many Israeli and Jewish groups for his alleged support of the white nationalist alt-right movement.
Bennett on Sunday attended a Zionist Organization of America conference, an event that Bannon was also supposed to be at, although he did not show up.
The Jewish Home source did not detail who Bennett met with.
Sources familiar with the nature of the meetings said that Bennett urged that the future Trump administration look at his idea for “Palestinian autonomy on steroids” — but not statehood — in some parts of the West Bank, the territory Palestinians want for a future state. Israel, Bennett proposed, would annex some areas such as the city of Ma’ale Adumim, which lies on the eastern outskirts of Jerusalem.
His suggestions were seen as a response to a statement made last week by Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, who suggested Israel seek a new approach to the West Bank settlement enterprise based on cooperating with the US to expand Jewish communities in the larger settlement blocs in parallel to a freeze on construction in smaller, outlying communities, the report said.
Liberman’s comments drew a sharp rebuke from Bennett’s national religious Jewish Home party, which backs the expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank.
According to Haaretz, after Liberman made his comments last Wednesday, Bennett met with Netanyahu and asked him to rein in the defense minister, arguing that the Trump administration will not be more pro-settlement than the example set by the Israeli government itself.
As the results of the November 8 US elections were announced, Netanyahu instructed his government not to speak publicly about the new president-elect. However the instruction was issued only after several right-wing ministers had praised Trump in the media for his supposed support for Israeli activity in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, as well as his promise to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem.
Among the first to congratulate Trump was Bennett, who declared at the time that “the era of a Palestinian state is over.”
Netanyahu himself congratulated Trump shortly after the results were announced.