Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party took aim Sunday at Defense Minister Naftali Bennett, accusing the Yamina party leader of “piggybacking” on plans to annex parts of the West Bank.
The offensive against Bennett — a fellow right-wing leader who has clashed with the premier in the past — came after Netanyahu further backed away from immediate annexation pledges he made following the unveiling of US President Donald Trump’s Middle East peace plan last month.
“We’re already in the process of mapping the territory that according to the Trump plan will be part of the State of Israel,” Netanyahu said at a Likud campaign event in the Ma’ale Adumim settlement town on Saturday night.
“This won’t take a lot of time and we’ll complete this,” he added, without further specifying. That comment was widely interpreted as an admission that the move would not happen before the March 2 elections.
After that speech, Bennett on Saturday night urged Netanyahu to immediately approve the annexation.
“There will never be a more fitting time to extend sovereignty on our land,” he tweeted. “I call on Netanyahu to bring the application of sovereignty in Judea and Samaria to an immediate vote in the cabinet. Mr. prime minister, we will be at your side. Without sovereignty, we will get a Palestinian terror state with Jerusalem as its capital.”
That statement apparently angered Netanyahu, with officials in his party saying that “Bennett is trying to piggyback on the sovereignty plans that the prime minister has presented through three years of work with President Trump.
“Bennett is unfamiliar with the details or the diplomatic steps taken with the American administration. His remarks are only endangering the extension of sovereignty.”
The Likud officials also alleged, without elaborating or providing evidence, that Bennett was holding “side talks” with Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz.
Bennett and other members of his Yamina party have repeatedly ruled out joining a Gantz-led government, and they all signed a loyalty pledge to Netanyahu after the September elections that prevented Yamina and Bennett from conducting independent negotiations with Blue and White.
Yamina officials reacted Sunday by criticizing Netanyahu’s decision to publicly attack the fellow right-wing party, likening it to “shooting inside the armored personnel carrier” — an image Bennett frequently employs to describe infighting on the right.
“It isn’t clear to us why Netanyahu is rushing to shoot inside the APC and attack his most loyal partners in the present and the future — religious Zionists,” the officials were quoted as saying in statement.
“We have no intention of being dragged into that sort of discourse. We will continue to lead a positive campaign focused on the issues at hand, to demand sovereignty here and now, and to promote Israel’s important interests in security, the judiciary, education, Jewish identity, transportation and more.”
Immediately after Trump announced the release of his Israeli-Palestinian peace proposal during a January 28 White House ceremony attended by Netanyahu, the premier told reporters he planned to bring his plan to annex the Jordan Valley and West Bank settlements for cabinet approval within days.
Though US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman initially signaled American support for Israel moving ahead immediately with annexation, White House senior adviser Jared Kushner clarified the next day that the administration expected Netanyahu to wait at least until a new Israeli government is formed sometime after the Knesset election.
Kushner on Thursday said it will likely take “a couple of months” to complete work on detailed West Bank maps before Israel will be able to annex settlements and the Jordan Valley.
Netanyahu did not clarify Saturday whether the mapping was in coordination with the United States or whether a commission had been established to work on the issue.
“There is a lot, a lot of territory and this won’t take a lot of time,” he said.
During what his Likud party called a “particularly important statement,” Netanyahu insisted the Trump administration will back his annexation plans.
“Don’t be mistaken, the Americans will go along with this, President Trump will go along with this,” he said.
Since backing off from his initial pledge, Netanyahu has refrained from giving a timeline for annexation, but at a campaign event Tuesday he urged attendees to help him get reelected, saying that a victory would allow his Likud party to gain approval for the Trump peace plan.
Those remarks appeared to be an acknowledgement that annexation would not be on the table before the national vote.
Nonetheless, Netanyahu reportedly told settler leaders Thursday he was still working on some degree of annexation before the elections, according to participants in the meeting.
Agencies contributed to this report.