Australian tycoon Gutnick denies Bennett conspiracy after backing Shaked

Bayit Yehudi leader Naftali Bennett accused the Likud on Monday of trying to break up his long-term political alliance with Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked.

Bennett was reacting to an exclusive report in Monday’s issues of The Jerusalem Post and Maariv that Australian diamond mining tycoon Joseph Gutnick – a Chabad rabbi who helped crown Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by funding a last-minute campaign ahead of the 1996 election – to be Netanyahu’s replacement whenever he would leave office. The article said Gutnick told Shaked he would be willing to back her financially, but the time had come for her to switch allegiance from Bayit Yehudi to Likud.

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“I am proud of Ayelet. She is terrific, and that is why I requested the Justice portfolio for her,” Bennett told Army Radio. “But there is an attempt by our friends in the larger party to cause a conflict or to paint her as an underminer who could stab me in the back. They don’t understand Ayelet. It won’t happen.”

Bennett was referring to statements praising Shaked by former coalition chairman David Bitan, who is close to Netanyahu. Bitan said that if she ran in Likud, she could win the second slot on the party’s Knesset slate after Netanyahu.

But Gutnick told the Post Monday that he was not acting on Netanyahu’s behalf and has not spoken with him since the prime minister visited Australia in February. He said he had not met Bitan.

“I am not involved in any plot of Bibi’s against Bayit Yehudi,” he said. “I told Ayelet years ago to join the Likud in order to be prime minister. She is clearly the one to be prime minister. Forget about Bennett’s conspiracy theories. I have never discussed her with Bibi. I am not a Likudnik. Just someone concerned about the security of Israel, and she is the best candidate that is electable.”

Gutnick criticized Bennett for not encouraging her to join the ruling party in order to lead it.

“Bennett’s response is very disappointing, but expected,” he said. “He will eventually come to his senses and think of what’s better for Israel, which is Ayelet joining the Likud in order to have the best prime minister. Time will pass, and she will understand she must leave Bennett. I have faith that it’s destined.”

Bitan himself backed off from wooing Shaked to Likud, saying on Monday that “She is terrific, but she won’t leave Bayit Yehudi, so it is not relevant.”

Current coalition chairman David Amsalem added in a briefing for Knesset reporters: “We don’t want to cause an uproar in Bayit Yehudi. This is an egg that has not been laid.”