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Are the settlers on their way out of Netanyahu’s government?

Prime Minister Netanyahu is fanning the flames of a confrontation with Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett. For now the public rift serves both sides. 
Concern is growing among the settlers over Kerry’s peace initiative. I heard a person close to the Yesha Council – the settlers’ main advocacy and lobbying organization – say that at the council’s most recent general assembly, people used terms that haven’t been heard since Oslo days.

Naftali Bennett, head of the Jewish Home party (formally the National Religious party) attacked Prime Minister Netanyahu earlier this week for floating the idea that Israeli settlers would remain in a future Palestinian state, under Palestinian rule. Speaking at the INSS forum, Bennett said, “our children will not forgive the leader who gives up the land.” Other settler leaders praised Bennett for his statement.

Read +972’s full coverage of the diplomatic process

Both parties are benefiting from the public rift so far: Bennett is scoring points with his base and positioning himself as the main figure opposing the Kerry process – Defense Minister Ya’alon was the front runner in recent weeks. Meanwhile, Netanyahu is building up his appeal in the Center and is strengthening his credibility with the Americans and Europeans as a leader who is willing to pay a political price for his commitment to the diplomatic process. It is telling that both Bibi and Bennett’s polling numbers have gone up in recent weeks; in that regard, this is the same old political theater of the previous couple of decades.

But Bennett could very well find himself outside the government soon. This morning (Wednesday), the prime minister’s proxies demanded that Bennett apologize for speaking out against Netanyahu. More so, it seems that the Prime Minister’s Office is fanning the flames rather than toning down the controversy, as he usually does.

UPDATE: Channel 2’s political reporter Amit Segal reported that Netanayhu has put an ultimatum before Bennett: apologize for your comments by Sunday 10 am, or get fired. UPDATE II: Bennett apologized. The Jewish Home’s leader wants the confrontation, but not at the price of leaving the government. 

It’s worth recalling that Netanyahu never wanted Bennett in his government and was forced to bring him into the coalition because of a political pact the settlers made with Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party. Beyond the personal grudge Netanyahu has against Bennett – who is his former chief of staff – Bibi knows that a centrist government is not only more acceptable to the world, but also more stable (since the opposition is composed of far-right and far-left parties, which can’t really cooperate on many issues).

Today, Lapid is much weaker and his pact with Bennett is pretty much over. Even if it wasn’t, Lapid’s pragmatic base wouldn’t allow him to leave the government in order to save the settlers. The fact that the Labor party is now headed by Isaac Herzog, who is far less confrontational than Shelly Yachimovitz, also makes life easier for Netanyahu. Herzog will be willing to enter the government as soon as the settlers leave it.

A greater concern for Netanyahu comes from within his own Likud party. But even there, hardliners like Ze’ev Elkin, Tzipi Hotovely and Danny Danon might stay in the government (they are all deputy ministers) until Bibi publicly commits to concessions. If they do leave and join MK Moshe Feiglin in the Likud’s internal opposition, Netanyahu will still have enough votes to pass any agreement he wants, due to the support of the Left.

I still don’t think Netanyahu is getting any closer to allowing the establishment of a viable Palestinian state, or even to negotiating earnestly with the Palestinian Authority. Bibi hasn’t changed; he still prefers the status quo, but given the international pressure he would like to reach a new understanding with the Americans and Europeans. This is the “agreement with the world” people in the government are talking about right now – a scenario in which Israel says “yes” to some elements of the Kerry initiative and regains legitimacy without fully committing to a Palestinian state or ending the occupation. That’s why I see more reasons for concern than for hope in the Kerry process.

Still, the settlers’ departure from the government, if it indeed takes place, is good news in and of itself. The alliance between the Center and the hard-right was the dominant feature of Israeli politics in recent years. It led to some dangerous developments, both in terms of public discourse and in legislation – from the ‘Nakba Law‘ to the Prawer Plan. This trend might subside a bit, and that is a blessing on its own. The chaos in the coalition was already evident this morning, when opposition MKs in the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee were able to block (for now) an attempt to raise the Knesset election threshold, a move that directly targeted Palestinian representation in the Israeli parliament.

Netanyahu steps up demands, wants settlers to remain in Palestinian state
Peace groups should criticize Kerry too
The only two-state solution that might work

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    1. Philos

      Noam, do you have an analysis of what might be Bibi’s medium term goals? Is he going to use Labour as a fig-leaf? Is he sim

      Reply to Comment
    2. Kolumn9

      “Bibi knows that a centrist government is … more stable”

      This is plainly not true. A centrist government collapses just as soon as any of the major parties that make it up believes it can form its own coalition after a new election. At the same time the parties within the coalition are being mercilessly attacked from both ideological sides. A right wing or left wing government is less likely to collapse because it is only under assault from the opposite side which is electorally irrelevant. Additionally elections with such a coalition are an entirely status quo / lose game, where either the same government is formed or all or most the parties will wind up in the opposition. There is very little incentive for early elections.

      I don’t see Bennett and Ariel hurrying to leave the government. If they are to be forced out, they would want it to happen in the most public and ideological possible way to embarrass the Likud ministers and MKs that are forced to vote against their stated positions. It would take something like a vote on a Kerry framework which mentions a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem. At least half of the Likud MKs would have a hard time with such a vote and also much of the Likud base (and at least officially Bibi himself). Additionally, any support that Labor grants to Bibi is not likely to last very long and Bibi would be severely weakened within the Likud if he was reliant on Meirav Michaeli for his position. There is also the likelihood that competition on the Palestinian side will see Hamas and IJ carry out attacks to wave their ‘resistance’ flags in contrast to Abbas (assuming he acquiesces to Kerry’s framework). Bibi’s ability to hold on to his position in such a scenario would become entirely untenable.

      Bibi needs Bennett out of the government before the Kerry framework comes up for a vote. At the very least that would isolate the Likud hawks within the government. Now he just needs to find a way to do that without being obvious about the issue being ideological, while Bennett is maneuvering to avoid that. It reminds me of the movie ‘How to lose a guy in 10 days’ where the woman is trying to drive a guy away in less than 10 days with her behavior while the guy is trying to do anything to stay in a relationship for more than 10 days. I saw that movie on a plane. That is my usual excuse for watching bad movies.

      Effectively, Netanyahu might have the votes to pass the Kerry framework (assuming Liberman complies), but he would also be voting himself out of office within 12 months. Both Boogie and Bennett are positioning themselves accordingly.

      The most likely scenario is that the Palestinians blow the Kerry framework up, saving Bibi from having to make these decisions.

      Reply to Comment
    3. The Trespasser

      > …a move that directly targeted Palestinian representation in the Israeli parliament.

      Given that “Palestine” and “Israel” are mutually exclusive toponyms, there can be no “Palestinian Israelis” nor “Israeli Palestinians”. A Turkish who moves to Germany becomes German, likewise, an Arab who lives in Israel is Israeli, and a Jew who lives in Palestine is Palestinian. For instance, should there be an agreement and some settlers decide to stay in Palestine, no one would call them Izaili Falastini, but rather Yahood Falastini.

      Basically, until Israeli Arabs are forced to retain their Palestinian pseudo-identity they won’t become Israelis.

      Reply to Comment
    4. richard witty

      I think netanyahu, like Sharon before him, sees the writing on the wall relative to the greater israel hope of 3/4 of likud.

      I think he will soon have to bolt with maybe a dozen in tow, like the formation of kadima.

      The hopes of Bds are hopes without a path for the hopes to play out.

      The pressure from kerry is much more likely to succeed for the care to construct domestic and international paths to an agreement and subsequent ratification.

      There is no prospect of a meretz led government, maybe with arab parties, partially because of the contempt of many young left journalists (972) for electoral efforts (plodding, bureaucratic, coopting

      Reply to Comment
      • richard witty

        To continue.

        A large opening for electoral change is happening.

        Like conspicuous incidents are an opportunity for Bds to educate (I wish that were all it did), this conflict within the right is potentially a tidal opportunity to shift israeli hearts and minds to respect for Palestinians, and practical (actually done rather than talk) moves to end the occupation and realize two healthy nations.

        But the third leg of the stool is electoral. Change can’t happen without it.

        Reply to Comment
        • Kolumn9

          BDS has no chance to educate any Israeli of anything since it a priori it demands that Israel commit suicide. With that starting position there is hardly any point for any Israeli to consider anything that BDS advocates have to say.

          Reply to Comment
          • Richard Witty

            There are two BDS’.

            One is the BDS that you refer, accompanied by the maximalist interpretation of right of return (a third generation descendent of Nablus having a right to “return” to Jaffa).

            There is a justifiable and effective BDS though, that is clear about what it is objecting to, clear about conditions to end BDS.

            And, therefore oriented to reform, rather than revolution.

            The EU is gradually adopting that BDS, not to eliminate Israel, but to reform Israel, so that they can continue doing business with Israel in good conscience.

            There are worse that that EU does business with. But, the great advantage of Israel, and the reason that the EU wishes to maintain its business and other relationships with Israel, is that it is not mechanically insensitive, that relationships between the EU and Israel are two-way.

            It is important to listen to their concerns, and accept their help in constructing an end to occupation i a way that leaves all standing.

            Reply to Comment
    5. brenda

      “Bibi hasn’t changed; he still prefers the status quo, but given the international pressure he would like to reach a new understanding with the Americans and Europeans.” I have no trouble believing that, but fortunately it isn’t all up to Bibi. The Americans and Europeans are playing hardball.

      I have hopes that the Kerry mission will be successful (probably one of the few people on the planet that do) It won’t be the settlement that Palestinian supporters would like, will give Israel more than it deserves and the Palestinians less than they deserve — but as an American tired of being yanked around by AIPAC I welcome any settlement at all.

      Reply to Comment
    6. Piotr Berman

      Lapid seems less friendly to settlers than during the election campaign (ynetnews.com): Following information suggesting funds intended for West Bank settlements were illegally transferred to Yesha Council for anti-government campaigns, finance minister orders funds freeze pending examination.

      [This is only one peculiar types of payments that allegedly was transferred to Yesha council in 80%, contrary to ostensible purpose.]

      The short-lived alliance of Yesh Atid with Jewish Home allowed to pass the draft for Haredim, a core plank for Yesh Atid. That done, Jewish Home becomes a nuisance.

      Reply to Comment

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