Israeli leaders engage in war of words amid worries about what peace might bring

A nasty little war of words this week between Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and a senior minister in his government exposed the deep anxiety permeating Israeli politics over the prospect of peace with the Palestinians — and for a few hours on Wednesday threatened to break up Netanyahu’s ruling coalition.

The very public spat ended, maybe, when Economy Minister Naftali Bennett apologized Wednesday night, sort of, after suggesting that the prime minister might be an irrational actor prepared to embrace dangerous proposals that could undermine the Jewish people.

The whole affair — driven by minute-by-minute tweets, press releases and blind quotes — was rough-and-tumble Israeli politics as usual.

But it also revealed the palpable jitters in Israel as Secretary of State John F. Kerry prepares to present in coming weeks a U.S. proposal for a framework agreement that could steer the Israeli-Palestinian peace process into uncharted waters.

The saga began Sunday when an Israeli official in the prime minister’s office told the Associated Press that Netanyahu believes that a future Palestinian state need not be “ethnically cleansed” and that some Jewish settlers could remain where they are.

Within hours, Bennett, a millionaire high-tech impresario and the pro-settler leader of the Jewish Home party, was typing up a storm on his Facebook page: “The notion that Jewish settlements would be under Palestinian authority, as the Prime Minister suggested, is extremely drastic and reflects irrational values on his part.”

Individuals close to the prime minister’s office responded in the Israeli news media by saying that Netanyahu was trying to goad the Palestinian leadership into rejecting the idea that some of the 350,000 Jewish settlers living in the West Bank could remain. That way, the thinking went, the Palestinians would appear unyielding.

The plan apparently backfired.

The Israeli media abounded in stories quoting people close to Netanyahu describing the prime minister as “furious” at Bennett for his public insubordination.

Not taking the hint, Bennett on Tuesday night shouted out a speech before a cerebral crowd at the annual Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv in which he warned that any Jewish settlers left behind in a Palestinian state would be “slaughtered.”

Bennett, who only an hour or two earlier had returned from his first trip to Poland to visit the death camps at Auschwitz, told the audience, “Why can’t Palestinians rule over Jews? Because they will kill them!”

“Our ancestors and our descendants will never forgive an Israeli leader who gives away our land and divides our capital,” Bennett said, referring to Jerusalem. (The Palestinians seek East Jerusalem as the capital of a future state).

People in the prime minister’s office told Israeli reporters that Bennett had until 10 a.m. Sunday to publicly apologize for his remarks or be fired.

At an education conference at the Dead Sea, Bennett said, “If the prime minister was insulted, that was not the intention.”

Netanyahu’s office appeared to accept this.

Crisis over, for now.

William Booth is The Post’s Jerusalem bureau chief. He was previously bureau chief in Mexico, Los Angeles and Miami.

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