Netanyahu Forbids Israeli Ministers From Contacting Trump's Team

The prime minister's directive comes after Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel met with the U.S. president-elect's advisers.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) stands next to then-Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump during their meeting in New York, September 25, 2016.
Kobi Gideon / GPO

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu forbade all ministers and deputy ministers from making direct contact with members in U.S. President-elect Donald Trump's team. A written directive was distributed to all cabinet members on the matter by Cabinet Secretary Tzachi Braverman following talks between Education Minister Naftali 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 Habayit Hayehudi leader and education minister, Naftali Bennett, who has been staying in New York City over the last few days in his capacity minister for diaspora relations. 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 formerly served as 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.

Immediately after it became clear that Trump had won the election, Netanyahu ordered his ministers to refrain from talking about it. “I ask every minister and Knesset member to wait until the new administration takes office,” he said. “We need to formulate a policy together with the new administration via the customary back channels, not via statements to the media.”

Netanyahu made these comments in response to the gleeful reaction to Trump’s victory by several ministers, first and foremost the leaders of Habayit Hayehudi, Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked. Bennett and Shaked said at the time that Trump’s victory was an opportunity to remove the two-state solution from the Israeli and international agenda.

At a briefing for diplomatic reporters last Wednesday, Defense Minister and Yisrael Beiteinu Chairman Avigdor Lieberman said that after Trump won, his closest advisors had sent official messages to the Israeli government asking it to refrain from making statements about the day after Trump takes office. "I hope that we have enough sense to stop the jubilation and public enthusiasm," Lieberman said. "It is undoubtedly damaging."

"In the messages we received from the Trump team they asked us to act modestly,” he continued. “We will wait and we won't establish facts on the ground."

But then, he promptly began making his own statements about what Israel should do once Trump takes office. Israel, he said, should try to make a deal with Trump under which the government will freeze construction in isolated West Bank settlements in exchange for U.S. recognition of the settlement blocs and permission to build freely there.