Netanyahu under pressure to turn right when he meets Trump
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Netanyahu under pressure to turn right when he meets Trump

Jewish Home’s Naftali Bennett warns of ‘an earthquake’ if the PM doesn’t disavow previous support for Palestinian statehood

Raoul Wootliff is the The Times of Israel's political correspondent.

Then Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Knesset, April 22, 2013 (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Then Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Knesset, April 22, 2013 (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Days before his first meeting with US President Donald Trump this week in Washington, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is facing warnings from within his right-wing coalition of “an earthquake” if he doesn’t publicly disavow his previous support of a two-state solution.

Writing on Facebook Saturday night, Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who chairs the Jewish Home party, said Wednesday’s meeting with Trump will be “the test of Netanyahu’s life” and will determine Israel’s policy toward the Palestinians for years to come.

Bennett said that if the two men mention “an obligation to establish Palestine or ‘two states’ in some or other iteration, we will all feel it in our flesh for years to come. It will be an earthquake.”

“International pressure, boycotts, anti-Israel reports, missiles, [building] freezes, tying the hands of our soldiers in the fight against terrorism — all this will continue and intensify,” he warned. Bennett called on the prime minister to walk back his support of Palestinian statehood, which Netanyahu first set out in a seminal 2009 Bar-Ilan University speech.

Education Minister Naftali Bennett attends the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on January 29, 2017. (Ohad Zwigenberg/POOL)
Education Minister Naftali Bennett attends the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on January 29, 2017. (Ohad Zwigenberg/POOL)

On Sunday, Netanyahu is convening a special cabinet session to hear his ministers’ views on the various matters on the agenda for his White House meeting. After the session, the prime minister will “present to the president Israel’s national interest as he understands it,” a senior official from the Prime Minister’s Office said Saturday.

But the official warned cabinet ministers to refrain from airing their opinions before Trump tells Netanyahu, behind closed doors, about his own positions. Such comments by Israeli politicians ahead of Wednesday’s meeting “risk sabotaging” the talks, the official said.

“The two leaders have good and warm relations, and this needs to be strengthened,” he added.

On Thursday, Culture and Sport Minister Miri Regev (Likud) touted the prime minister’s right-wing credentials, saying that he has always been in favor of a controversial new law to legalize West Bank settlement outposts, even though in the past he warned of its international consequences and reportedly wanted to delay a Knesset vote to approve it until after his meeting with Trump.

Culture and Sport Minister Miri Regev participates in a meeting of the Knesset Finance Committee on November 30, 2016 (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Culture and Sport Minister Miri Regev participates in a meeting of the Knesset Finance Committee on November 30, 2016 (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

In an interview with Israel Radio, Regev asserted that Netanyahu was a key element in seeing the so-called Regulation Law being approved in the Knesset.

“What do you think, that if the prime minister didn’t support the law that it would come about?” she said when asked on Netanyahu’s true feelings about the law. She added that although the law had been pushed by the pro-settlement Jewish Home party, it was only because Netanyahu also supported the legislation that it succeeded in becoming law.

The law, which passed with a majority of 60 to 52 on Monday night, allows Israel to compensate Palestinians whose land has been taken over by settlers, instead of removing the outposts.

While Bennett and other have been pushing Netanyahu to capitalize on the election of Trump, who portrayed himself throughout the campaign as unflinchingly pro-Israel, they may have been surprised two days ago when he spoke out against settlement expansion and said he was still unsure about moving the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

In an interview published over Friday and Sunday in the Israel Hayom newspaper, the president said Israeli settlements in the West Bank “don’t help the process” of reaching peace. “Every time you take land for settlements, there is less land left,” he said. “But we are looking at that, and we are looking at some other options we’ll see. But no, I am not somebody that believes that going forward with these settlements is a good thing for peace.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump meeting at Trump Tower in New York, September 25, 2016. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump meeting at Trump Tower in New York, September 25, 2016. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

It wasn’t the first time Trump’s administration expressed reservations over Israel’s settlement construction, but it was his first comment n the issue, and his remarks were more critical than those of his spokesman. Earlier last week the White House issued a mild rebuke over a spate of approvals for new settlement homes, warning that expansion in areas Palestinians want for their own state “may not be helpful” to peace efforts.

“While we don’t believe the existence of settlements is an impediment to peace, the construction of new settlements or the expansion of existing settlements beyond their current borders may not be helpful,” press secretary Sean Spicer said on February 3.

In his Israel Hayom interview, Trump said he was anticipating stronger ties between Israel and the US as well as a close personal connection with Netanyahu, and expressed his hopes for a regional peace deal, something that eluded his predecessors.

“I think we are going to have a better relationship [with Israel],” he said.

Pressed on his campaign pledge to relocate the US embassy, Trump said, “I am thinking about the embassy, I am studying the embassy [issue], and we will see what happens. The embassy is not an easy decision. It has obviously been out there for many, many years, and nobody has wanted to make that decision. I’m thinking about it very seriously, and we will see what happens.”

According to media reports, Trump administration officials have been reaching out to Ramallah with reassuring messages regarding settlements and the potential embassy relocation. According to one newspaper, Trump is expected to personally brief Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas following his meeting with Netanyahu.

Raphael Ahren and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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