Education Minster Naftali Bennett met three members of U.S. President-elect Donald Trump’s team on Sunday and asked that the new administration not rush to embrace a two-state solution, but rather examine alternatives to the official American policy that prevailed during the Bush and Obama administrations.
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These meetings were probably what prompted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to issue a directive to his cabinet members on Monday not to hold direct talks with Trump’s team.
Sources familiar with the details of those meetings said that Bennett suggested that the new administration examine his plan as an alternative to the two-state solution. Bennett said that what he was proposing was a “Palestinian autonomy on steroids” in parts of the West Bank along with steps towards gradual imposition of Israeli sovereignty on other parts, such as the annexation of Ma’aleh Adumim to Israel as the first step. Trump’s team took note and said they would pass on his ideas.
In response to queries by Haaretz, Bennett refused to discuss the content of his meetings, saying that he had gone on a routine business meeting to New York. His meetings with Trump’s team were arranged in recent days and were apparently added to the original schedule, which had included meetings with Jewish organizations, as part of his role as Minister for Diaspora Affairs. It is thought that Bennett arranged the meetings with Trump’s team in order to present a position which countered the one presented days earlier by Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, in an effort to show that there are other views held in the cabinet.
In a briefing to political correspondents last Wednesday, Lieberman, leader of Yisrael Beiteinu, said that Israel would continue its policy of supporting a two-state solution and would try to reach a deal with Trump, according to which Israel would freeze construction in isolated settlements in the West Bank in exchange for American recognition of the large blocs, allowing construction to take place there. Bennett and his Habayit Hayehudi party members objected to that stance, claiming that Lieberman had caused damage in relations with the new administration.
In a meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office that day Bennett asked Netanyahu to clarify things and to call Lieberman to order. According to someone who was at the meeting, Bennett said that Trump wouldn’t be more right-wing than Israel’s government so that Lieberman’s public statements impose constraints on Israel and the new president, who might have been willing to dramatically change U.S. policy towards the conflict and support annexation of settlements.
Netanyahu forbade all ministers and deputy ministers on Monday from making direct contact with members of Trump’s team. A written directive was distributed to all cabinet members on the matter by Cabinet Secretary Tzachi Braverman following talks between Bennett and Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel with a number of Trump advisers.
“I would like to inform you that by the directive of the prime minister, the ministers and deputy ministers are required to not make any contact with the incoming U.S. administration, other than through the Prime Minister’s Office or the Israeli Embassy in Washington,” the directive that was distributed to the ministerial offices Monday read. “I would be thankful for the immediate compliance with the prime minister’s said directive.”
The directive was first reported on the Israeli news website Walla News. A senior official in Jerusalem told Haaretz that it was distributed to members of cabinet following “an attempt by some unauthorized persons to meet with senior members in the new administration.” The senior official refused to name who these people were.
Despite this, Haaretz has learned that one of the ministers is Bennett, who has been staying in New York City over the last few days in his capacity as Minister for Diaspora Affairs. Bennett attended an event of the Zionist Organization of America on Sunday, which was supposed to be attended by Trump’s chief strategist Stephen Bannon.
Bannon, one of the most controversial people in Trump’s inner circle, ended up not attending the event. Bennett however has met with other possible members of Trump’s future administration on the sidelines of the event and discussed the relationship between Israel and the American Jewish community, as well as political issues such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Another minister who has contacted Trump staffers in recent days is Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel, also of Bennett’s Habayit Hayehudi party. On Friday, Ariel sent a letter to Bannon, whose appointment has been widely criticized in America due to claims that he is anti-Semitic and racist. The letter was published over the weekend on the Breitbart website, which has served as Trump’s mouthpiece, and where Bannon was formerly editor-in-chief.
Ariel wrote that while he didn’t see eye to eye with Bannon on every issue, he was grateful for Bannon’s opposition to both the nuclear agreement with Iran and anti-Israel boycotts. He added that he doesn’t know Bannon personally, but has heard good things about him from their mutual friend, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach – one of the most prominent figures on the right wing of the U.S. Jewish community.
Last week, Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer met with the president-elect and his senior advisors at Trump Tower in New York. Dermer was the first foreign ambassador whom Trump has met with since winning the presidential election.
After the meeting, Dermer told reporters that Trump and his staff are great friends of Israel, and that he looks forward eagerly to working with them, Bannon included. He specifically mentioned Bannon despite the vehement opposition to Bannon’s appointment by a long list of Jewish organizations.