Herzog said to signal he’ll join government for ‘rare peace opportunity’

Opposition leader and Netanyahu reportedly working on coalition deal that would scale back settlement construction

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shakes hands with leader of the opposition Isaac Herzog during the opening session of the 20th Israeli parliament on March 31, 2015. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shakes hands with leader of the opposition Isaac Herzog during the opening session of the 20th Israeli parliament on March 31, 2015. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

Opposition leader Isaac Herzog was recorded during a recent meeting with a fellow party member defending his coalition negotiations with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

He was considering leading his Labor party into the government, he said, because he saw a rare opportunity for peace.

“I see a regional opportunity, a rare diplomatic opportunity that perhaps we won’t have again,” Herzog is heard saying in tapes aired by Channel 10 TV on Sunday.

“I’m not saying that for nothing. I’m saying that out of knowledge. It’s more complicated than ever, it’s got a lot of parts, I don’t know if it will happen, but it could be that it will happen only with a change in the makeup of the government.”

“If we can talk with Abbas,” Herzog quipped of the Palestinian Authority president, “we can talk with Netanyahu.”

The report did not say precisely when the recording was made.

The TV report added that Netanyahu and Herzog are currently working on a joint agreement to scale back settlement building in the West Bank as part of the deal, though it is unclear if such an agreement would have much effect on the ground, as settlement construction has in any case been kept to a trickle in recent years.

On Thursday, Herzog sought to dispel rumors of an imminent agreement, saying widespread talk of a breakthrough in the negotiations was premature.

Herzog wrote in a Facebook post that “so far we have not received a suitable offer — if an appropriate offer is made, we will seriously consider it.”

Senior Zionist Union lawmakers predicted that any offer by Netanyahu to join the coalition would be dropped if an agreement is not reached by the Knesset’s summer session, due to begin on May 23.

Earlier Sunday, Netanyahu called on Avigdor Liberman to add his six-seat Yisrael Beytenu party to the razor-thin governing coalition.

“Leave Zoabi and join the government,” he said at the weekly cabinet meeting, alluding to the opposition Joint (Arab) List’s MK Hanin Zoabi, a constant target of derision from Liberman. The prime minister said Liberman signaled willingness to ally himself with the government.

Liberman’s ultra-nationalist party is the only right-wing faction in the opposition, which is led by the Zionist Union and includes the Joint List. Netanyahu commands a 61-member coalition in the 120-seat Knesset, meaning the departure of any members could compromise his wafer-thin 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.

Liberman and Netanyahu ran on the same list in the 2013 elections, but had a public falling out in 2014 over the prime minister’s handling of the war in Gaza.

The prime minister voiced optimism in Sunday’s meeting that he and Liberman could reach a deal to bring Yisrael Beytenu into the government.

But members of both Likud and Yisrael Beytenu dismissed the report as “spin.” Liberman dismissed Netanyahu’s call in a Facebook post, saying Netanyahu was courting the Zionist Union, and if he were to get a serious offer he’d consider it.

“It’s not surprising that Netanyahu’s government isn’t a right-wing government,” he wrote. “It doesn’t fight terrorism, but contains it,” he charged, accusing the government of viewing Palestinian stabbing attacks as inevitable. The government “tells the citizens of Israel that it’s a divine edict; it doesn’t build in Jerusalem or settlement blocs in the West Bank, returns the bodies of terrorists — in short, any connection between it and the nationalist camp is incidental.”

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