What prompted the crisis between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Economy and Trade Minister Naftali Bennett over the release of Palestinian prisoners?
Channel 2 reported on Wednesday that on the day that the renewal of peace talks with the Palestinians was announced in July, Netanyahu met with Bennett, the leader of Habayit Hayehudi, to brief him, including on the planned release of Palestinian prisoners.
According to the report, Bennett agreed to the prisoner release. However, Bennett denies this and says that he merely pledged to Netanyahu not to bring down the government over the renewal of peace talks.
The Channel 2 report said that Netanyahu also talked with Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Finance Minister Yair Lapid on the day the renewal of talks was announced, and received their approval for the move.
Netanyahu's meeting with Bennett was also attended by Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon, National Security Adviser Yaakov Amidror and senior Netanyahu aide (and now Israeli Ambassador to the U.S.) Ron Dermer. Ya'alon provided Bennett with a situational assessment, telling him that releasing Palestinian prisoners was the least-bad option for Israel, compared with freezing settlement construction or committing to the 1967 borders. According to various sources quoted in the Channel 2 report, Bennett said of releasing prisoners, "It is tough, but I support it."
Amidror told Bennett that no limits would be put in place on settlement construction, and Bennett reportedly responded, "I'll swallow it [the prisoner release], if it will be tied to construction."
Livni, who waited outside the room during the meeting, asked Bennett as he departed, "So, is everything set?" Bennett replied, "I can live with it."
Netanyahu then called U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and told him, "There is an agreement with my [coalition] partners, but there will need to be construction every time there is a prisoner release. This will make it easier for them."
But Bennett then began to backtrack. Half an hour after his meeting with Netanyahu, Bennett called the prime minister and informed him, "I cannot support it [releasing prisoners]."
Netanyahu retorted, "What do you think this is, a political game? You are a government minister. What do you mean by 'abstain'? You cannot reverse yourself."
After the conversation ended, Netanyahu told his advisers that Bennett would abstain. Ya'alon called Bennett to try to convince him to support the release of prisoners. Meanwhile, Kerry announced the renewal of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
The following Sunday, the cabinet met, and contrary to prior understandings, Bennett voted against the release of prisoners.
In response to the Channel 2 report, Bennett's office said on Wednesday night, "This never was and never existed. [Bennett] never agreed to release terrorists and he announced that he would vote against the government. Any other statement is a lie."
In an interview with The Jerusalem Post this week, Bennett said emphatically, "I was never presented those two possibilities," speaking of a prisoner release or a construction freeze.
"Netanyahu told me [about the prisoner release] when it was a fait accompli," Bennett told the Post.