Herzog denies report he met with PM for unity talks

Channel 1 says secret meeting took place without knowledge of aides; Likud silent

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shakes hands with Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog during the opening session of the Knesset on March 31, 2015. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shakes hands with Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog during the opening session of the Knesset on March 31, 2015. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently met with Zionist Union party chief Isaac Herzog to discuss the creation of a national unity government, Channel 1 reported Monday night, prompting a swift denial from Herzog.

“It never was and never will be,” Herzog said, while his party called the report “ludicrous.”

According to the report, the meeting was held in secret and close aides on both sides were kept out of the loop.

Netanyahu’s camp has remained silent on the report, which came as coalition talks were in full swing nearly a month after national elections saw the Likud party gain 30 seats.

Talk of a Likud unity government with the Zionist Union’s 24 seats has been repeatedly dismissed by both sides but rumors persist, in what may be a ploy to pressure Netanyahu’s natural allies on the right — parties that are set to form his next governing coalition — to be more flexible in their demands.

On Sunday night, a four-hour meeting Sunday night between Netanyahu and Moshe Kahlon reportedly culminated in a decision that Kahlon’s Kulanu party will receive the finance, housing and environmental protection ministries in the next coalition.

The meeting focused on resolving Kulanu’s demands with an emphasis on the “professional tools” that Kahlon has been seeking in order to carry out his promised economic reforms, particularly in housing, the daily Yedioth Ahronoth reported on Monday.

Netanyahu is already on record pledging that he will name the Kulanu head as finance minister. The leading candidate for a second ministership in the party is retired IDF general Yoav Galant, No. 2 on Kulanu’s Knesset list.

Likud officials were quoted by Yedioth as saying that Kulanu would not receive the chairmanship of the Knesset Finance Committee, one of the key “professional tools” demanded by Kahlon, since that position had already been promised to MK Moshe Gafni of the ultra-Orthodox party United Torah Judaism.

But while Kulanu has given up its demand for the leadership of the committee, Kahlon has held to his demand for the Interior Ministry’s Planning Administration, Israel Radio reported.

After his meeting with Kahlon, Netanyahu met with Aryeh Deri, the leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, who is also vying for control over the Planning Administration, and will likely be named interior minister in the next cabinet.

Netanyahu is reportedly close to signing coalition agreements with Shas and United Torah Judaism.

The prime minister’s focus on talks with the ultra-Orthodox parties and Kulanu has irked the leaders of the right-wing Jewish Home and Yisrael Beytenu parties, who have been complaining that negotiations with them have been put on the back burner.

“It’s not at all clear to me what the prime minister wants,” Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, the leader of Yisrael Beytenu, told Israel Radio on Sunday.

“Our negotiating team met with Likud’s negotiating team, and we felt like we were being strung along,” he said. “They are really drawing things out. We want to be part of the government, but not at any price.”

MK Yariv Levin, who is part of the Likud coalition negotiating team, painted a sobering picture of the talks in an interview with Israel National News radio.

“There are still significant gaps and it is not certain that it will be possible to bridge them in coming days,” he said. “We need to speed up the negotiations. I hope that we will discover among our partners willingness to reach a compromise because so far we have just seen a hunkering down behind demands that don’t enable an end to the negotiations as should have happened.”

Under Israel’s electoral system, Netanyahu must cobble together a coalition comprising smaller parties by offering cabinet positions — including, possibly, some of the most senior posts in government — to factions whose support he requires if he is to cement a Knesset majority of at least 61 seats. Meanwhile, lawmakers within his own Likud party have also demanded top jobs, citing the party’s strong 30-seat showing, which makes the party the largest by far in the 20th Knesset.

Netanyahu has until May 7 to present his coalition to President Reuven Rivlin.

Stuart Winer contributed to this report.

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