Opposition leader Isaac Herzog on Saturday defended his decision to halt coalition talks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, saying he had a clear conscience even as the government faced a backlash over the imminent appointment of hawkish right-winger Avigdor Liberman as defense minister.
“We must take painful decisions, even if they are unpopular. I wasn’t held hostage and I did not crawl. If I had crawled, I would have been inside [the coalition] for a long time already,” Herzog told a cultural event in Kfar Saba, the Walla website reported. “I am at peace with my conscience. It is the duty of a leader to try.”
Liberman reached a still-unfinalized deal with Netanyahu on Wednesday to take his five-seat Yisrael Beytenu party into the coalition, an agreement that saw the prime minister oust former IDF chief Moshe Ya’alon from the Defense Ministry to make way for Liberman. Ya’alon quit political life on Friday morning, citing his lack of trust in Netanyahu and asserting that Israel under the prime minister was descending into extremism.
The Yisrael Beytenu deal was struck after Herzog walked away from his own negotiations with Netanyahu, claiming that the prime minister had refused to put the agreements they reached in writing. Herzog later confirmed reports that efforts to bring Zionist Union into the government were driven by international leaders, among them former British premier Tony Blair and US Secretary of State John Kerry, as part of a widespread push to restart peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.
Netanyahu on Friday indicated he was still open to the idea of National Union joining the coalition, but Herzog said Saturday this was out of the question.
Herzog also said that once the coalition deal with Zionist Union was done, Israel was supposed to begin immediate peace talks with the Arab states, and blamed the failure of the effort on the prime minister. “Netanyahu is a man full of fear who preferred to go with the extreme right,” he said, according to Army Radio.
Meanwhile, Zionist Union MK Shelley Yachimovich, who Herzog earlier this week accused of scuppering the coalition talks, said Saturday that she had experienced “one of the most shameful weeks in the political history of the State of Israel.”
“There has never been such a low,” Yachimovich said in a statement. She also mourned Ya’alon’s resignation from political life, saying that “It is no coincidence that this honorable man is turning his back on politics as it reaches at the height of its rottenness.”
Herzog on Saturday called the negative response by members of his party to the prospect of a unity government “unacceptable” and “hypocritical.”
Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid, whose party was in Netanyahu’s previous government and who in February teamed up with Liberman to lambaste the prime minister, paid tribute Saturday to Ya’alon.
“I salute Bogie [Ya’alon] and I think that all Israeli citizens should thank him for what he has done. He should be part of national leadership in the future,” Lapid told a cultural event in Holon. He also criticized the political leadership, saying that it “does not deal in values, only in [backroom deals].”
Netanyahu signaled Friday that despite bypassing Zionist Union in favor of the pact with Yisrael Beytenu, he would still be pleased to see the party join the government.
“The government is seeking peace. There are diplomatic opportunities because of certain regional developments that I am personally working all the time to attain,” he said, in an apparent effort to preempt criticism over what has been branded the most right-wing government in Israel’s history.
“This is why I made a great effort to have Zionist Union join the government. And therefore I leave the door open, in the most serious manner, for such a move, which can only do good for the State of Israel.”