Netanyahu-Bennett Rift Roils Coalition Talks

YERUSHALAYIM -

Jewish Home sources said that party leader Naftali Bennett was “shocked” when Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu notified him that he would not be getting the defense portfolio, confirming on Wednesday a report that Netanyahu had broken his word to him.

According to the story, Bennett was promised one of the three most senior ministries — defense, foreign affairs or finance — in return for his support in the election campaign, but was rebuffed after the Likud victory.

In response, a Likud source denied that Bennett was promised one of the top three jobs, but only a “senior portfolio.” Even that was conditional on Jewish Home winning enough mandates and not attacking the Likud, but “Bennett criticized Netanyahu throughout the campaign,” he said.

Likud officials also claimed to be surprised that an experienced politician like Bennett would think that the pre-election deal, made when Likud was behind in the polls, would still be binding after its big victory.

The subsequent rift between Netanyahu and Bennett has reportedly cast a pall over the coalition talks, fueling speculation that a unity government with Zionist Camp leaders Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni might really be in the offing despite denials.

Netanyahu and Herzog were supposed to have been seen meeting in a quiet neighborhood, according to a report on Tuesday.

“It didn’t happen and did not take place. Nothing about it was suggested and there was no discussion,” Herzog told reporters on Wednesday.

Likud minister Gilad Erdan was less definite. “As far as I know, there wasn’t such a meeting, but I am not sure I’d know if there was,” he said. Erdan is regarded as a candidate for foreign affairs, which would go to Herzog if such meetings are taking place.

“If the nationalist camp doesn’t compromise soon, as time goes on the prime minister might have no choice but to be generous to the Zionist Union,” Erdan said in a reference to the stiff negotiation positions of Jewish Home and Yisrael Beiteinu.

Not that all is quiet on the center-left front, either. Herzog’s reported insistence on securing a senior post for Livni is an impediment to any deal. Netanyahu’s dismissal of  then-Justice Minister Livni and then-Finance Minister Yair Lapid, who were thorns in his side for two years, paved the way for early elections, and the prime minister is adamant about keeping both out of the new coalition, according to Yisrael Hayom.

Meanwhile, Shas sources said that party chairman Aryeh Deri was not interested in the transportation portfolio, which was offered to him, but might agree to accept the economy and trade ministry. Naftali Bennett held the post in the last government.

Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman is also holding out for better things. Outgoing Yisrael Beiteinu minister Uzi Landau confirmed that Lieberman will take defense or foreign affairs, or nothing, The Jerusalem Post reported.

“If he is not offered the Foreign Ministry or something close to it, the chance of Yisrael Beitenu joining the coalition in my opinion is close to zero,” Landau said. “He has had so many jobs, he may decide not to be in the coalition this time. He won’t join the government at any price.”