Israel’s opposition leader on Tuesday night denied negotiating with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to bring his center-left Zionist Union party into the coalition, but did not rule out the possibility in the future.
Isaac Herzog said that reports in Hebrew media earlier Tuesday of significant progress in contacts with Netanyahu toward a unity government were “a complete lie.” There had been “no progress” and there were “no negotiations,” Herzog told Channel 2 news.
Asked if he would promise to rule out joining the coalition, however, Herzog said: “I won’t give that answer.” Were the prime minister to put aside “his narrow interests and act in the national interest,” and were Netanyahu to show a readiness to take the “historic decisions” to advance Israeli-Palestinian peace, Herzog said, he would consider joining the government and would consult with his party.
But that situation, he said, was emphatically not the case at present. In fact, Herzog told Channel, Netanyahu “missed an opportunity” to advance peace when world leaders gathered on Friday for the funeral of Shimon Peres.
Israel’s Channel 10 news had reported earlier Tuesday that negotiations on Herzog’s party joining the coalition were making progress, and that Netanyahu was seeking to seal a deal in the next month.
According to that report, Zionist Union would receive eight ministerial portfolios as part of the agreement. The eight would include the Foreign Ministry, which would likely go to Herzog, as well as the Culture and Sports Ministry, and the Economy Ministry.
Netanyahu would also commit to holding an international peace conference, to be attended by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi. Like Herzog, Netanyahu’s Likud party denied the reports.
Channel 2 said Netanyahu was aware that only 6-8 of Zionist Union’s 24 MKs would go with Herzog into the government if a deal were finalized. This would give his coalition a strong majority, and break apart the Zionist Union, the report noted, explaining Netanyahu’s motivation. Herzog, for his part, knows he faces a relentless effort to unseat him as opposition leader, and would want to support a genuine Israeli effort to advance peace, the TV station said, explaining his ostensible thinking.
Netanyahu has acted as foreign minister since the formation of the government in 2015, and has negotiated intermittently with Herzog on bringing Zionist Union into the government.
The prime minister been consistent and open about his desire to expand his coalition, but in May he aborted negotiations with Herzog and instead cut a deal that led to Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu party joining the government and Liberman becoming defense minister. Since then, rumors of a deal to bring the Zionist Union into the 66-seat government have swirled, to the discontent of some opposition MKs.
Herzog was quick to vehemently deny the Channel 10 report Tuesday, as was Zionist Union faction chair Eitan Cabel.
“Herzog completely denies the report and regrets that there are those who spread false information even during the [Jewish] holiday,” his office said.
Cabel wrote on Facebook: “If negotiations did not translate into action last time, from my perspective not only is there is no real reason to be part of the government, it is absolutely forbidden to be part of a government that would be hell for the movement in which I was born and raised.”
Herzog has said repeatedly that the opportunity to join the government passed when Liberman came in, but reports have continued to surface of ongoing talks with Netanyahu. It is far from clear that the entire 24-strong Zionist Union Knesset faction — numerous members of which have castigated Herzog for contemplating partnering with Netanyahu — would enter the coalition even if Herzog were to agree to do so.
A previous sign that a unity government could be in the offing came last week, when Netanyahu asked some of his ministers whether they would oppose the inclusion of Zionist Union in the coalition.
Only a handful of ministers were present during the weekly cabinet meeting, including Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, Health Minister Yaakov Litzman and Tourism Minister Yariv Levin. According to the Ynet news website, none opposed the expansion of the government.
Both Liberman and Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who heads the right-wing, pro-settler Jewish Home party, were absent from the meeting however.