Last updated: 29 January, 2014

Israel minister seeks to diffuse spat with Netanyahu

Israel’s hard-right economy minister apologised Wednesday for public attacks on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over US-backed Middle East peace talks.

“There are those who are trying to spin what is a debate about the future and security of our country as a personal attack that never happened,” Naftali Bennett said at an education conference at the Dead Sea.

“If the prime minister was hurt, I’m very sorry,” Bennett said.

Media reported that Netanyahu had threatened Wednesday to sack Bennett from the cabinet if he refused to apologise for his criticism in the past few days.

Bennett leads the far-right Jewish Home party, which has close ties with the Jewish settler movement. It has 12 seats in parliament and is a member of Netanyahu’s coalition.

Bennett took Netanyahu to task over reports earlier this week that the premier was floating the idea of leasing existing Israeli settlements from the Palestinians in a future Palestinian state.

“An odd idea has come up lately — that Jews continue living where they are but under Palestinian sovereignty,” Bennett said Tuesday.

“My response? It will not happen and it cannot happen.”

Some 650,000 Jewish settlers live in the occupied West Bank, including annexed Arab east Jerusalem, and the future of those settlements, on land the Palestinians want for their future state, is one of the key stumbling blocks to a peace deal.

“Our ancestors will never forgive an Israeli leader who divides our land and our capital,” Bennett added.

Jewish Home hardliners have called for a gathering on Thursday at Jerusalem’s Western Wall, the holiest site in Judaism, to protest against the peace plan and “beseech divine mercy over the dangers that threaten to tear away parts of our land.”

US Secretary of State John Kerry has been trying since he kick-started the latest round of peace talks in July to push Israel and the Palestinians towards a framework agreement ahead of an agreed April deadline.

He has come in for criticism from Israel’s more hawkish cabinet members, including Bennett and Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon.

In remarks earlier this month that caused a diplomatic spat with Washington, Yaalon was quoted as calling Kerry’s drive for Middle East peace a messianic “obsession.”

Some of Israel’s hardline ministers oppose outright any peace negotiations or the creation of a Palestinian state.

“Anyone who comes up with a bizarre idea in the Western world, they say, let’s try it out on the Jews,” Bennett said Tuesday.

“The state of Israel is not your laboratory,” he said, apparently addressing Kerry.