Livni vs. Bennett: Israel’s acrimonious coalition

Judging by the words of Israeli Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza could lead to the destruction of the state of Israel.

Judging by the words of Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, establishing a Palestinian state is the best way to ensure Israel’s survival.

A pair of speeches by Bennett and Livni, delivered within hours of each other on Tuesday, brought the wide contradictions in Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s governing coalition into stark relief.

As Israel’s negotiations with the Palestinians enter a critical stage, the irreconcilable disagreement between Bennett and Livni showed the fragility of the government elected less than a year ago.

It’s no secret that Bennett and Livni dislike each other. Livni has called publicly for Bennett’s pro-settler Jewish Home party to leave the coalition, and Bennett has jabbed back at Livni on Facebook.

Tuesday’s speeches, though, laid out Bennett’s and Livni’s respective, opposing visions for the future of the West Bank, and in both speeches, each politician managed to put the other down.

Speaking at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies, Bennett methodically worked through why a West Bank withdrawal would not bring peace, security, demographic safety, international legitimacy or improved moral standing to Israel.

He said that “the nation elected us… to guard the values of the state of Israel, not to pawn our future to Abu Mazen,” Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ nom de guerre.

Addressing a crowd of law students at Hebrew University that evening, Livni — who chairs the Hatnua party and leads Israel’s delegation to the negotiations —  said a two-state solution would give Israel broader regional alliances and the international legitimacy to fight its true enemies, and would allow Israel to keep the large settlement blocs that contain a majority of settlers.

“The question is whether the Zionist dream is about the land of Israel at the price of the Jewish state, or a Jewish state on part of the land but not all of it,” she said. Livni didn’t shy from accusing Bennett of wanting to “turn Israel into a besieged state.”

Bennett, for his part, pointed out that after running a campaign based on the platform of a two-state solution, Livni garnered all of 5 percent of the vote. He added that Jewish Home would bolt the coalition if it agreed to divide Jerusalem. Livni didn’t make a corresponding demand, though it’s possible that Hatnua would leave the government if negotiations collapse.

Israelis shouldn’t start setting up the ballot boxes just yet, but Bennett’s and Livni’s oppositional posturing shows how unstable Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government is — especially compared to his previous coalition. While Bibi had largely right-wing “natural” coalition partners from 2009 to 2013, the current coalition makeup is far more politically divided.

Livni ran last year on the premise that Bibi would bring “catastrophe” to Israel. Now, she’s representing him in negotiations. And though Bennett always planned to sit in a government with Netanyahu, since July he’s found himself in the awkward position of saying that the two-state solution favored by the prime minister would bring ruin to Israel.

That’s not to mention the falling out between Bennett and the centrist Yesh Atid, or the tremors in Netanyahu’s own party. Netanyahu is in the minority of the Likud in supporting a Palestinian state, and the party’s alliance with the hardline Yisrael Beiteinu is reportedly on the verge of collapse.

Netanyahu cruised to victory a year ago through the Yisrael Beiteinu alliance and cobbled a coalition together based on a shared domestic agenda of draft and economic reform. Negotiations with the Palestinians haven’t managed to break those bonds, but they could very well be cut loose should an agreement come to the table.

Ben Sales is JTA’s Israel correspondent. He reports on Israeli politics, culture, society and economics, in addition to covering Palestinian and regional affairs. A graduate of Washington University in St. Louis and the Columbia University Journalism School, he is the former editor-in-chief of New Voices, the national Jewish student magazine.