TEL AVIV — Simmering tension between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel and one of his right-wing political partners boiled into open hostility Wednesday, threatening to reshape Israel’s governing coalition at a critical moment in the US-brokered peace talks with the Palestinians.
The prime minister’s office issued a warning Wednesday morning to Naftali Bennett, the leader of the religious-nationalist Jewish Home Party, that if Bennett did not apologize for his harsh criticism of Netanyahu’s positions in recent days, he could lose his seat in the Cabinet.
“There is an expectation that he will apologize,” said an official in Netanyahu’s office, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to reporters. “The prime minister has coalition alternatives.”
Bennett, 41, had delivered repeated, blistering denunciations during the past few days of a suggestion by the prime minister’s office that some Jews in far-flung settlements might live under Palestinian sovereignty in a future peace deal.
Hours after Netanyahu’s office issued its ultimatum, Bennett said, “If the prime minister was offended, that was not my intention.”
But he stood by the substance of his statements and did not explicitly apologize.
“I respect Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his leadership in not-simple conditions,” Bennett said at a conference of religious-nationalist leaders near the Dead Sea. “I support him when it is needed, and I criticize him when it is needed. That is my duty.”
He added, “Imposing Palestinian sovereignty over Israeli citizens is dangerous, and it was my duty to remove this idea immediately from our agenda, and it has been removed.”The prime minister’s office did not respond to inquiries on whether Bennett’s statement would suffice.
The flap highlights political dynamics in Israel that many analysts see as a potentially fatal obstacle to any peace deal.
Netanyahu’s coalition partners have profound ideological differences regarding the establishment of a Palestinian state, and the prime minister’s willingness to compromise on issues like the future of Jerusalem and fate of Palestinian refugees remains an open question.
The cracks in the coalition came as Secretary of State John Kerry prepared a “framework” of principles for continuing the negotiations.
Bennett has said that he will quit the coalition if Israel signs a pact that calls for a Palestinian state to be set up along the 1967 lines with East Jerusalem as its capital, as it is expected to do.
But two other coalition partners — Tzipi Livni, the justice minister, who is leading the talks, and Yair Lapid, the centrist finance minister — are likely to leave the government if Israel does not continue to support Kerry’s initiative.
Netanyahu, whose support of a two-state solution also faces deep opposition from within his own Likud Party, distanced himself from Kerry’s framework on Tuesday, saying, “Israel does not have to agree with everything America presents.”
“The more serious these negotiations get, the more fragile this coalition is,” said Marcus Sheff, of the Israel Project, an advocacy group. “We’re looking at clearly stated and different political viewpoints, and those are going to be articulated more as the process progresses.”
The leader of the Labor Party has promised Netanyahu a “safety net” to pursue peace with the Palestinians, but it is unclear whether, if Bennett were pushed out, the party would agree to join the coalition before a framework was presented or signed.