This Israeli Minister Could Block Trump's Regional Peace Push

  • Bennett’s eight votes enough to undermine Netanyahu coalition
  • Jewish Home party opposes any land concessions to Palestinians

Trump Reaffirms 'Unbreakable Bond' Between U.S., Israel

The new Israeli-Palestinian peace process hasn’t even started yet, and it’s already facing hurdles.

Naftali Bennett, a minister crucial to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition, is threatening to use his party’s seats to topple the government if Palestinians are granted land concessions in negotiations. U.S. President Donald Trump said during a visit to Israel last month the two sides are ready to resume talks after a three-year hiatus.

“Any peace agreement that is predicated on dividing Jerusalem, on cutting up our tiny country and handing it to the Palestinians, will fail,” said Bennett, head of the Jewish Home party, which wants to annex land in the West Bank and ardently opposes a two-state solution.

Israel’s 45-year-old education minister, who became a millionaire as a technology entrepreneur before entering politics 11 years ago, only controls eight seats in the 120-member Knesset. But that’s enough to undermine the coalition of six parties that gives Netanyahu a narrow, six-seat majority.

For the Palestinians who want east Jerusalem as the capital of a future state, Bennett’s conditions risk derailing any negotiations that unfold -- that is, unless Netanyahu brings the Labor party into the fold and sidelines Bennett. The risk of that strategy is that support for his Likud party wanes and some voters defect to Jewish Home, further right on the political spectrum.

Dividing Jerusalem

Trump didn’t give details on what his vision for a breakthrough in peace talks might look like, but notably didn’t publicly push either side for concessions. He’s taken this approach to avoid emboldening Netanyahu’s rivals on the right, primarily Bennett, according to former U.S. ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro.

It’s not hard to see why: Since Trump was elected, Bennett has ratcheted up pressure on Netanyahu to bury the idea of a Palestinian state. He garnered support for a bill in February to legalize some Jewish settlements in the West Bank. His vision includes annexing large portions of the territory, currently under Israeli military control.

“No Israeli will accept dividing Jerusalem,” Bennett said from his office at the Knesset on Monday, a week after the U.S. president stopped in Israel during his first overseas tour. “There’s still a lack of clarity in the region what Trump means by peace -- what is this deal? What does it mean?”

Netanyahu told coalition partners this week that Trump is serious about achieving a deal, suggesting they should hold back on moves to annex or build aggressively in the West Bank.

"Anyone who thinks there’s a blank check is mistaken," Netanyahu told members of his Likud party Monday. Israel needs to conduct itself “wisely and responsibly,” he said.

For more on why the idea of a two-state solution is fading, click here.

For at least 15 years, the U.S. and the international community have pushed for a peace deal that would include the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza Strip -- areas captured by Israel from Jordan in the 1967 Middle East war. During his trip, Trump conspicuously refrained from mentioning the idea of an independent state.

More Autonomy

Bennett said he envisions giving Palestinians “autonomy on steroids”-- implying an exponential increase in their rights -- but not allowing them control of territory beyond what was ceded during the Oslo process of the 1990s. 

Inside Israel, in his role as education minister, Bennett has increased funding to the country’s Arab communities and promised to add hundreds of millions of shekels this year to improve their access to education.

Still, his demands on the peace process don’t mesh with those of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who says the only way forward is a two-state solution. Highlighting another stumbling block to a deal, Netanyahu reiterated that any future peace agreement must include an Israeli military presence in the West Bank, the Jerusalem Post reported Tuesday.

“The best way to achieve peace is by keeping Israel strong and providing the Palestinians autonomy," Bennett said. “I know the world is not on my side. But there is one little thing that is on my side, and that’s reality.”

Besides the Palestinian issue, Bennett says Trump’s visit buttressed Israel’s regional security because the U.S. showed it’s standing with Sunni Arab countries and Israel against Iran. President Obama helped negotiate a global nuclear agreement with Iran that was much criticized in the region.

“The Middle East needs a cop, and when there’s a big bad guy named Iran, we need someone to check Iran,” he said.

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