Hoping to woo Herzog, Netanyahu to keep Foreign Ministry in back pocket
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Hoping to woo Herzog, Netanyahu to keep Foreign Ministry in back pocket

Likud official confirms prime minister is holding onto top portfolio in bid to convince Zionist Union to join government later on

Adiv Sterman is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

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)

A Likud official confirmed Thursday that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was holding the Foreign Ministry portfolio for himself in the hope of later handing the top government position to Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog should he manage to cajole the party into the coalition.

Nir Hefetz, the head of the Likud’s public relations wing, confirmed to Israel Radio Thursday that the prime minister was still holding the portfolio, even after Netanyahu late Wednesday hammered out a deal with Jewish Home party leader Naftali Bennett, allowing the Israeli leader to inform President Reuven Rivlin that he had successfully cobbled together a 61-seat coalition.

“I understand that [keeping the Foreign Ministry] is [the prime minister’s] inclination, because he really wants to leave room for the government to expand in the future,” Hefetz said.

When asked whether Netanyahu was holding the government portfolio in hopes of wooing Herzog, Hefetz responded “yes.”

Unnamed Likud officials told the Israel Hayom daily that Netanyahu was seeking to expand the government beyond its current fragile, two-seat majority, and that he is set to pursue negotiations with the Zionist Union on the matter over the coming weeks.

Israel’s Channel 2 reported Wednesday night that Netanyahu had sought to have the Zionist Union, and not Jewish Home, join the coalition all along, and had offered Herzog the post of deputy prime minister. However, Netanyahu was said to have opposed Herzog’s co-faction chair Tzipi Livni, who heads the Hatnua party, becoming part of his coalition, and Herzog, who heads the Labor party, rebuffed his overtures, the TV report added. Likud and Zionist Union both immediately denied the report.

Netanyahu himself hinted at efforts to expand his coalition in announcing his government Wednesday night.

“61 seats is a good number. 61-plus is a better number. But it starts with 61, and we will begin with that,” Netanyahu said. “We have a lot of work ahead of us.”

Herzog criticized Netanyahu’s newly formed government shortly after it was announced Wednesday night, saying that the 61-seat coalition “lacks responsibility, stability and governance.”

He also called it a “national disaster of a government. A weak and narrow government, susceptible to blackmail, that will advance nothing and will quickly be replaced by a responsible and hopeful alternative.”

Livni also had harsh words for the new government.

“I disagree with the worldview, the path, and the objectives [of the new government], so I cannot wish it luck on the issues where there is such a disagreement, but in general, I hope for the best for the nation of Israel,” she said.

Netanyahu’s Likud won 30 seats in the election six weeks ago, and he signed up United Torah Judaism (6 seats), Kulanu (10) and Shas (7) for a total of 53.

Jewish Home’s eight seats, which he clinched late Wednesday night, gave him the necessary 61 seats to form a government, albeit one with a slim majority.

Shas leader Aryeh Deri on Tuesday urged Herzog to join the coalition, and enable “a socioeconomic government,” but Herzog has insisted he will lead a spirited opposition.

Likud’s Knesset speaker, Yuli Edelstein, on Tuesday conceded that a 61-strong coalition would present “a string of problems,” but acknowledged there may be no choice, and said Netanyahu could make “every effort” later on to sign on more partners.

In a statement Wednesday, after the deal between Likud and Jewish Home was announced, he said, “Tonight we are filled with hope that we will march Israel’s security, economy and all other fields forward.”

Netanyahu sent Rivlin a letter confirming that his Likud party had clinched a coalition late Wednesday night, after making the announcement. He now has until next Wednesday to swear in his new cabinet.

Netanyahu is likely to appoint several senior Likud colleagues to the security cabinet too, to offset their unhappiness at missing out on top cabinet posts, and to ensure that the security cabinet supports him on key decisions.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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