Bennett Clarifies: I Did Not Apologize to Netanyahu

PM issues ultimatum to economy minister: Apologize by Sunday or you're fired; Bennett says regrets if Netanyahu was hurt; Likud officials: We didn't expect our threat to work so quickly.

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Barak Ravid
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ברק רביד - צרובה
Barak Ravid

Economy Minister Naftali Bennett clarified on Wednesday that he did not apologize to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for his criticism of the prime minister's peace plans.

Earlier Wednesday, Netanyahu issued an ultimatum to Bennett, ordering him to apologize for his statements by Sunday at 10 A.M., or he will be fired. Bennett then said that he did not mean to hurt the prime minister, but that he stands by his statements. Later on Wednesday, senior officials in the Likud party said that Bennett had backed down and apologized quicker than they had expected.

The row began on Sunday when Bennett launched an unprecedented attack against Netanyahu's suggestion that Israelis could live under Palestinian rule.

Bennett was responding to remarks made by Netanyahu at the World Economic Forum in Davos, where he said he has no intention of uprooting a single settlement and suggested settlers could remain outside Israel's borders under a peace agreement with the Palestinians.

Shortly after Netanyahu's ultimatum was reported, Bennett spoke at a conference at the Dead Sea and commented on the issue.

"There are elements trying to turn a substantive debate over the future of our security and our land into a personal attack that didn't happen," said Bennett at an education conference at the Dead Sea.

"I respect Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his leadership under difficult conditions, support him when needed and criticize when necessary and that is my duty.

"Placing Palestinian sovereignty over Israeli citizens is dangerous, and it was my duty to shoot down the idea from the agenda immediately, and indeed the idea was shot down."

Bennett's office released his statements to the press, and it was initially reported that he also said: "If the prime minister was hurt, I am certainly sorry about that."
However shortly afterward, his office released a correction and said that they made a mistake while transcribing Bennett's statements, and that he in fact did not apologize.

Bennett told his associates later on Wednesday that he did not mean to hurt the prime minister, but rather wanted to express a strong stance on an important issue. "Bennett said that he has no interest in hurting the prime minister, but he does not intend on saying anything more than that the ball is in their court."

Sources in the Likud party responded on Wednesday evening to Bennett's statements. "Bennett's letter of dismissal was already ready. We didn't expect our threat to work so quickly. [Housing and Construction Minister] Uri Ariel persuaded Bennett to apologize," said senior sources in the Likud.

Earlier Wednesday, sources said that Bennett, leader of the Habayit Hayehudi party, had told confidants that he has no intention of apologizing. Indirect contacts between the Prime Minister's Office and Bennett's office were held throughout the day on Wednesday, mediated by Housing and Construction Minister Uri Ariel.

Ariel, who is a member of Bennett's Habayit Hayehudi party, received a phone call from Cabinet Secretary Avichai Mandelblit on Wednesday morning saying that Netanyahu expected Bennett to apologize publicly for the sharp personal attack he made. The housing minister passed along the message and tried to persuade Bennett to apologize and end the row as soon as possible.

Ariel even went on Israel Radio Wednesday morning to call for an end to the spat and said, "If it were me, I would find a way to apologize." Meanwhile, Ariel and other sources said that Bennett made clear that he believed he had expressed a legitimate position regarding a fundamental issue – the future of the settlements.

Earlier Wednesday, Netanyahu's bureau has informed Naftali Bennett that he must apologize "clearly and sharply, in public" for his personal attacks against Netanyahu over the last few days or the coalition would be in danger.

"It was clarified to Bennett that there a lack of apology comes at a price," a senior source in the Prime Minister's Bureau said. "Nobody will teach Netanyahu what love of Israel is, and what concern for the security of its citizens is. With all of Bennett's claims, it's not clear why he's stuck to a seat in the government."

Netanyahu's bureau called Bennett "cheeky" and said "his type of irresponsibility will not be passed over quietly."

The source added that Bennett's behavior also endangered the interests of the residents of West Bank settlements.

"If he doesn't apologize, he endangers the composition of the current government," said Netanyahu's bureau. "We have enough alternatives to Habayit Hayehudi. A government without Bennett can continue to worry about the security of the state just like every government before him."

The controversy exploded Sunday with Bennett's unprecedented attack against Netanyahu's suggestion that Israelis could live under Palestinian rule.

Bennett was responding to remarks made by Netanyahu at the World Economic Forum in Davos, where he said he has no intention of uprooting a single settlement and suggested settlers could remain outside Israel's borders under a peace agreement with the Palestinians.

Bennett said Netanyahu's comments reflect "ethical befuddlement" and that "whoever even considers having Jews live in the Land of Israel under Palestinian sovereignty undermines our presence in Tel Aviv.

Habayit Hayehudi leader Naftali Bennett and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Knesset, July 2, 2013.Credit: Tali Meyer

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