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Sneak Attack at Trump Tower

Yossi Elituv

Bennett’s visit takes Netanyahu by surprise

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

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PLAYING HOOKY Naftali Bennett played hooky at a cabinet meeting to cozy up to Donald Trump’s Middle East advisors. What’s his game plan? (Photos: AFP/Imagebank)

B inyamin Netanyahu knew something was awry when he stared at an empty seat at his weekly Sunday morning cabinet meeting.

His education minister, Naftali Bennett, had taken an unexcused absence to fly to New York for what he hoped would be an impromptu meeting with Donald Trump. The subject of the meeting? Urging the incoming administration to bury the two-state solution.

Bennett didn’t meet the president-elect, but did sit with three of Trump’s top unnamed Middle East advisors, irking Netanyahu while positioning himself as the champion of Judea and Samaria.

Following Bennett’s return, Netanyahu slapped an order on his cabinet to avoid any unauthorized contact with the incoming US administration.

But this won’t be the last of the Bennett-Netanyahu tug of war. Both politically and personally, Bennett and his Jewish Home Party are at odds with Netanyahu and the Likud. Bennett supports annexing 60% of Judea and Samaria, where 90% of the Jewish settlements are located. Officially, Netanyahu supports a two-state solution, at least to the extent that it keeps the meddling international community and Israel’s vocal leftists off his back. But nobody really knows how Netanyahu feels about the settlements anymore, and many right-wingers feel that if push comes to shove, Netanyahu will give the settlements a shove.

The Bibi of 2016 isn’t the same Bibi of his first term in 1996, when he took President Bill Clinton on a helicopter tour of Judea and Samaria to impress upon him the strategic vulnerability of the country and show him that Jewish settlements rarely encroach on Arab villages. The Bibi of 2016 avoids identifying openly with the right. To him, it’s a wise strategy, and it’s contributed to the fact that last week, Netanyahu surpassed David Ben-Gurion as Israel’s longest-serving prime minister. Bennett and his second-in-command, the popular justice minister Ayelet Shaked, have no such compunction when it comes to identity politics. With Minister of Defense Avigdor Lieberman leaning more to the left, Bennett and Shaked have positioned themselves as the leaders of Israel’s religious right. They feel the electorate is leaning that way, and that they can use the levers available to coalition partners to keep Netanyahu from heading in Lieberman’s direction.

Other than attempting to usurp Netanyahu’s budding relationship with Trump, Jewish Home has taken the initiative to break the left’s stranglehold on Israel’s judiciary. Four Supreme Court justices are retiring in 2017. Shaked recently released a list of 28 candidates for those positions, and may introduce a bill to give her, and the Knesset — with its right-wing majority — more power over those appointments.

Bennett and Shaked are also outflanking Bibi on the right in Amona, an outpost 42 miles north of Jerusalem and home to some 40 Jewish families.

Amona residents are praying that the lights stay on past a Dec. 25 demolition deadline

A December 2014 Supreme Court ruling found Amona was built on private Arab land and ordered its demolition by the end of December 2016. Amona residents claim they bought the land legally from its Arab owners. The Netanyahu government has been fighting the demolition order through legal means, but halfheartedly, according to Bennett. In early November, a ministerial committee introduced a law to retroactively legalize the status of Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria, including Amona, and provide monetary compensation to PA Arabs at twice the assessed value of the land they claim is theirs.

The Knesset must approve the measure, which Netanyahu opposes. He prefers to continue the legal battle that Bennett and Shaked contend is a lost cause.

“The time has come to take a stand against all the left-wing groups who are trying to determine the character of the state by filing appeals in the Supreme Court,” Bennett told Mishpacha during a brief interview in the Knesset cafeteria. “With this vote, we sent a clear message to the court that the Knesset is in charge. The law will protect all Israelis equally whether they live in Amona, Beitar Illit, or Tel Aviv. The left is upset? Good. Let them chill.”

Bennett and Shaked have thrown their entire weight behind the measure. They say they are prepared to bring the government down over it, and are working hard to lobby Likud Knesset members that most Likud primary voters are right wing, and they will hold a no vote against them the next time primaries roll around.

For now, the government is still alive, but as the December 25 deadline to demolish Amona approaches, all eyes may soon focus on this little town in the Judean Hills that the Palestinians claim is theirs but once belonged to the tribe of Binyamin.

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