Behind the Scenes of Bennett's Flip-flop on Netanyahu Ultimatum

Realizing their resignations would be seen as irresponsible and would inhibit their election campaign, Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked of Habayit Hayehudi U-turned — without telling party colleagues

Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett, left, speaking as he and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked give a statement at the Knesset in Jerusalem on November 19, 2018.
AFP

Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked had decided on Sunday to quit the coalition, but they changed their minds following Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's press conference in the evening. They had both realized that Netanyahu had set a trap for them in his speech and that their resignation would be perceived as an irresponsible whim. They also knew they would have difficulty running an election campaign from the opposition.

Very few key people around them were in the know, and they did not consult with most of the six other Knesset members in their Habayit Hayehudi party, including their cabinet colleague, Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel. 

Bennett and Shaked had been prepared to announce their resignation from the coalition in a resounding speech Monday morning. Shortly before Netanyahu convened his press conference Sunday evening, Bennett’s spokesman sent invitations to the press to Monday's planned dramatic announcement, though without specifying what the dramatic announcement was about.

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A source in Habayit Hayehudi who spoke on condition of anonymity said the resignation threat was meant to pressure Netanyahu, but others said they believed Bennett and Shaked genuinely intended to quit. Bennett, who entered politics following the 2006 Second Lebanon War, could not accept Netanyahu’s “wimpy” policy toward Hamas. Shaked fully shared his views, and the two found it difficult to explain to their base the restraint of the security cabinet, to which both belong. Nevertheless, the party's official position was that the government should not be dissolved. 

Despite efforts, someone — presumably someone in their own party — leaked the resignation plans to the media, leading MKs from the party to publicly denounce the move.

"I think the public will take revenge on Habayit Hayehud if it's convinced there was a possibility of maintaining the government and it falls anyway," MK Nissan Slomiansky said in an interview with the Galey Israel radio station. "Our job is to be the responsible adult and not to bring down the government, his party colleague Moti Yogev said in a different interview. Before the press conference, a few rabbis from the Zionist religious movement spoke to aides of Bennett in an effort to dissuade him from resigning.

Bennett and Shaked met in Tel Aviv after Netanyahu's press conference Sunday night, where they decided to change tack and also wrote their speeches. They realized that Netanyahu, who declared that it would be irresponsible to call early elections at such a critical moment for Israel's security, had laid a trap for them. In light of his remarks, they judged, their resignations would be seen as an irresponsible caprice, hurting their approval ratings. In addition, it would be harder to run an election campaign from the opposition benches. 

Individuals close to Netanyahu told Haaretz that the prime minister put great effort this week into shoring up his image as "Mr. Security," in an effort to embarrass Bennett and force him to remain in the coalition. With that goal in mind, he convened his Sunday night press conference at the Defense Ministry's Tel Aviv offices, after meeting with the outgoing army chief of staff and his successor. He also called an unscheduled meeting Monday with the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, briefing its members on the latest developments. Before the session — and before Bennett and Shaked's media conference — the prime minister issued a press release in which he said "At this sensitive security time, it would be irresponsible to topple the government."

On Monday morning, after Bennett and Shaked had already decided to remain in the coalition, other MKs in their party were still ignorant about the shift. Ariel said in an interview with Army Radio that as far as he knew, both of them intended to quit. He refused to say whether he fully supported the move. Another MK from Habayit Hayehudi, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that if Bennett and Shaked were to resign, it would cause enormous damage to the party and its future in the next election. He also criticized their handling of the affair, saying, "You don't issue an ultimatum to a serving prime minister and you don't bring down a right-wing government."

Yogev, who criticized the resignation plan, welcomed the about-face of his party's leaders. "They put the national interest ahead of their personal| interests, and Israelis respect that," Yogev said, adding, "At a time when the former defense minister fled from responsibility, ministers Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked chose to responsible, and preserved the government. That is the right decision in the face of the security and other challenges that we face."

The party's Knesset whip, MK Shuli Moalem-Refaeli, called the decision not to resign "principled and correct."

"Our goal," she said, "was to effect a change in the defensive concept and that's what happened, even if we pay a political price for it. ... Resigning from the government now, despite our disagreements over policy, would have been an error on the national level."

Slomiansky said that "Israel needs political stability," adding, "We shall continue to act in the spirit of religious Zionism, to the benefit of the state and its citizens."