Herzog hobbles toward unity government despite public opposition

In the face of lackluster support for a unity deal, opposition leader says ‘the public does not yet know what is being talked about’

Raoul Wootliff is a former Times of Israel political correspondent and Daily Briefing podcast producer.

Opposition leader Isaac Herzog  on March 28, 2016. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Opposition leader Isaac Herzog on March 28, 2016. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Opposition leader Isaac Herzog appears to have not given up hope of bringing his Zionist Union party into the ruling coalition, despite new polling showing a lack of public support for the move and indications from the ruling Likud party that talks have stalled.

While a reported Sunday night meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu yielded no breakthrough in the ongoing talks aimed at forming a unity government, Herzog, who leads the Zionist Union Knesset faction along with its larger constituent the Labor Party, has continued to signal his intention to reach a deal, undeterred by an apparent stalemate.

Asked Tuesday morning about polls released a day earlier showing that a majority of the public and most of his own party supporters oppose the move, Herzog told skeptical party members that he believes he can prove the worth of a good deal.

“The public does not yet know what is being talked about. If we will not have significant influence, there will not be a deal. I am convinced that I can persuade the public if it is a good deal,” Herzog can be heard saying in recording released by Army Radio.

Polls released Monday by Channel 2 and Channel 10 found that the public is split evenly over the potential unity government. Fifty percent were against it in the Channel 10 poll and 52% opposed the move in the Channel 2 survey, both published Monday. Of Zionist Union voters, only 36% favor entering the coalition, while 60% oppose it, the Channel 2 survey also found.

File: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Zionist Union leader MK Isaac Herzog in the Knesset, January 20, 2014. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Zionist Union leader MK Isaac Herzog in the Knesset, January 20, 2014. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

Both sides say that the Sunday night meeting showed major differences between Herzog and Netanyahu and that significant gaps remain, according to a Channel 2 report.

They reportedly disagreed over the controversial natural gas deal, a proposal that would force NGOs to declare their foreign funding, and a bill allowing the Knesset to suspend lawmakers.

Herzog is demanding a member of his party be made either justice minister, culture minister or communications minister, according to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, positions all currently held by members of the coalition, in the latter case by Netanyahu himself.

Asked by The Times of Israel if there were any ministerial positions Herzog was insisting upon, a spokesman for the Zionist Union chair refused to comment on the specific demands. He also, however, did not deny rumors that Herzog is advancing moves to bring a possible deal before his party next week.

Netanyahu’s government currently has the slimmest possible Knesset majority, 61 out of 120 MKs. The Zionist Union has 24 MKs, of whom 19 are members of Herzog’s Labor and five of Hatnua, led by Tzipi Livni.

The razor-thin margin for the ruling coalition means the departure of any members could compromise the prime minister’s majority.

After years of his majority government winning votes in the parliament, the past year has seen some embarrassing losses to the opposition, sometimes caused by just a couple of absent lawmakers.

Polls published Monday night showed support for the Zionist Union plummeting if elections were held now, with Channel 2 predicting it would fall from its current 24 Knesset seats to 17 and Channel 10 giving it just 13 seats. Likud would go from 30 to 27, according to Channel 2, and as low as 25, according to Channel 10.

Last week, Netanyahu confirmed that Likud and Zionist Union had been in advanced stages of talks on a new unity government. Those discussions were said to have ended after it emerged last month that Herzog was under investigation for campaign finance issues.

Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, whose Kulanu party was predicted by both polls to drop seats if elections were held today, said Monday he supported bringing Zionist Union into the coalition.

“I met with the prime minister and heard from him that the efforts to expand the coalition are ongoing. This is the right time, and there is no better time for a broad unity government,” Kahlon said in a statement.

Knesset House Committee Chairman David Bitan speaks at a committee meeting October 26, 2015. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Then-Knesset House Committee Chairman David Bitan at a committee meeting October 26, 2015. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Newly appointed chair of the coalition, Likud MK David Bitan, however, told Army Radio on Tuesday that he hoped Avigdor Liberman’s right-wing Yisrael Beteynu party would join the coalition, signaling a lack of support within the Likud for a deal with Zionist Union.

Liberman’s nationalist party is the only right-wing faction in the opposition, which is led by the Zionist Union and includes the Joint List of Arab parties.

On Sunday, Netanyahu publicly called for Liberman to join the coalition. Liberman rejected the proposal and called Netanyahu’s statement “spin.”

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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