Netanyahu Must Curb Bennett and Keep the Peace Talks Alive

Right-wing minister Naftali Bennett is trying to torpedo Benjamin Netanyahu’s best chance to negotiate with the Palestinians.

Bennett and Netanyahu at the Knesset. February 2, 2014.
Bennett and Netanyahu. It's now the prime minister's turn to speak. Emil Salman

Last week, Economy Minister Naftali Bennett tried to prevent the faltering peace talks from being revived. He said his party would quit the government if Israeli Arab prisoners were released. As Bennett put it, “If the deal under discussion includes the release of murderers with Israeli citizenship, it will be a blow to Israel’s sovereignty.” But for Bennett and his Habayit Hayehudi party, this sovereignty is as flexible as rubber.

A day before Bennett threatened to leave the government, he wrote a letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He called for the annexation of the West Bank settlement blocs due to the “foundering of the negotiations,” which would immediately turn Israel into a pariah state. Bennett and ministers from his party are doing all they can to sabotage the talks while eulogizing them, so they can bolster and enlarge the West Bank settlements.

In light of Bennett’s vociferous protest, remember that Israel has already released Israeli prisoners — in the swap for abducted soldier Gilad Shalit, as demanded by Hamas. It did not view this as a violation of its sovereignty.

Of concern this time is Israel’s conduct. Just when the talks reached a decisive point, Israel refused to carry out its part of the deal and release prisoners in a fourth round that included Israeli Arabs. The prime minister, not Bennett, bears responsibility for this, but Netanyahu, who knew how to overcome Bennett’s threats in the previous rounds, must not let Bennett set the diplomatic agenda.

In the balance now is not only an agreement to which Israel has committed itself, but the last chance in the foreseeable future to conduct negotiations with the Palestinians. If Netanyahu lets Bennett torpedo this opportunity, Netanyahu might keep his rejectionist coalition together, but he’ll whet Bennett’s appetite.

If the government knuckles under, there's no need to guess the diplomatic and economic price Israel and its citizens will have to pay for Habayit Hayehudi’s messianic caprice. Threats of a Palestinian uprising, international sanctions and boycotts from the West hang over every Israeli. It’s not certain that Israelis are willing to keep serving the kingdom of the settlements, which is being built by the architects of the right who control the government.

The coalition that Bennett is threatening is only of value if it can promote Israel’s essential interests. Bennett is endangering those interests.