Forward Thinking

The Bibi-Bennett Feud Isn't Over

By Nathan Jeffay

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The Israeli government has just emerged from a three-day coalition crisis, after public displays of antagonism between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Economy Minister Naftali Bennett reached new highs.

A letter firing Bennett had reportedly already been prepared when he cleared the air last night. Netanyahu was furious that Bennett questioned his integrity because he suggested that some settlers could live under Palestinian rule following a peace deal. Netanyahu displayed “moral confusion,” charged an indignant Bennett, who leads the coalition’s most right-wing faction, Jewish Home.

The friction between the two men rose, and yesterday Netanyahu issued Bennett an ultimatum — apologize or leave the coalition. A few hours later, Bennett moved to clear the air and voiced “respect” for Netanyahu’s leadership under “difficult conditions” — though there is confusion over exactly what he said and whether it constituted an apology.

Details aside, the crisis seems to have come to a close, and the two men will go on working together. But for how long?

It was back in 2010 when Bennett shared his frank assessment of Netanyahu — whom he used to serve as Chief of Staff — with the Forward. I sat at his Ra’anana home and he told me that as Netanyahu led Israel towards peace talks he was “being bullied into doing something that is against Israel’s self-interest, and he knows it, but he feels that he doesn’t have a choice.”

He went on to say: “I feel that he has a choice, he should have acted differently, and it’s not too late — he still can, though it’s getting more difficult every day,” referring to Netanyahu’s willingness to go along with the Obama administration’s push for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Bennett was so “deeply disappointed” with the politician he’d been keen to help that he put his spectacularly successful high-tech career on hold.

The conflict continued after last year’s general election, when Bennett, who had exceeded all expectations in the election, was kept waiting a notably long period of time before Netanyahu consulted with him on joining the coalition, and longer still before he was finally invited to join. Bad feeling from the end of Bennett’s period with Netanyahu as Chief of Staff is thought to have merged with political differences to make Bibi hesitant to team up with Bennett.

They are two men raised with the ideals of the right who have sharply different views about how their principles should be fought for on the world stage. This is epitomized by the clash over Netanyahu’s comments about settlers living under no-Israeli rule. For him, the concern is to get the best deal for Israel if there’s to be a Palestinian state; for Bennett it is to take the Palestinian state off the table. And so, while this coalition crisis is over, another may well be brewing.


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