An unprecedented confrontation broke out in a cabinet meeting on Wednesday morning between the Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the chairman of Bayit Yehudi, Education Minister Naftali Bennett.
The Bayit Yehudi leader became angry at the fact that the issue of the IDF's deployment in Area A was not on the meeting's agenda, after he learned that the defense establishment is seeking to minimize or completely stop IDF presence in Palestinian cities in the West Bank in an effort to calm tensions on the ground.
He asked Netanyahu for clarification on this, and he claimed that it had been agreed that the issue would be discussed.
According to sources present at the meeting, the prime minister chided Bennett, telling him "Calm down, or I'll fire you."
Bennett retorted, "You can do whatever you want, I'll keep fighting for my security positions."
On Sunday, the prime minister had promised Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon, Bennett and the military secretary that the meeting would include a discussion of the A Area subject. "Keep your promises," Bennett yelled at Netanyahu, who retorted, "You aren't running things here."
The other ministers tried to calm the Bayit Yehudi leader down, with Likud Minister Ze'ev Elkin telling him, "Naftali, come on, this is inappropriate. You were already told there will be a briefing by the IDF chief." Minister Aryeh Deri accused Bennett, "What you're saying now, is actually you not giving backing to the chief of staff and the IDF."
A new low
The clash signaled a new low in the tensed relations between the prime minister and the education minister. The two have clashed several times before, but senior political officials said this latest exchange was "unprecedented" and that the argument itself was very heated and personal.
"We've already seen rounds of fighting between Bennett and Netanyahu, but what happened at the cabinet (on Wednesday) is just a new low. We've yet to see such a clash. The tone and the content of what was said were unusually harsh. Netanyahu was yelling and raging," said the senior official.
Another political source added, "Netanyahu didn't like the style and content of what Bennett said and answered harshly - 'you are not running anything.' Despite that, he eventually placated him and raised the agenda item in question for discussion, and later a statement on the topic came out. After Netanyahu yelled, got up, and wanted to cut the meeting short, he regained his composure because everyone, Netanyahu included, understand the meaning of firing Bennett. That is probably why they both calmed down and let the discussion continue."
The statement issued after the meeting noted: "Prime Minister Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ya'alon and IDF Chief of Staff Eisenkot made it clear that the IDF maintains – and will maintain – the possibility of entering Area A, and anywhere necessary, according to operational needs, and that there is no other agreement with the Palestinians."
A third official claimed that "it was clear Bennett was seeking this confrontation. He was speaking very bluntly."
In response to reports of the confrontation, Bennett's office stated, "We will not address the details of closed security debates. Cabinet leaks are a serious issue that endanger national security. I expect the prime minister to handle this."
The Prime Minister's Office replied, "We do not address cabinet discussions."
While the two's respective offices declined comment, many in the political system were quick to respond, with Bennett's party colleagues backing him.
"It is elementary for a minister and senior partner in the government to demand information and answers on matters of security, as terror rages in the streets," said MK Shuli Mualem. "If Netanyahu wants to break up the government over this, why not? Let him go and explain once again that Arabs are going to the polls in droves. Except that this time, the public will understand who cares about Israel's security more."
At mentioned, this isn't Bennett and Netanyahu's first clash. During a cabinet meeting three weeks ago, the Bayit Yehudi leader attacked those who condemned Sgt. Elor Azaria, who shot dead an already-neutralized terrorist in Hebron, hinting that the prime minister was among them.
Netanyahu reacted with anger, saying: "I led soldiers into battle, don't you preach me about morality."
But this did not appease Bennett, who responded: "Backing (the soldier) is done with actions, not with words. Why are you judging him before investigating?"
The two also went head-to-head in a cabinet meeting in January. After Foreign Ministry officials announced that they were boycotting the Bayit Yehudi leader, Netanyahu backed them up, leading Bennett to claim: "You're afraid to manage the people at the Foreign Ministry. This is a question of governance - whether the employees manage you, or you them."