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Netanyahu and Herzog open, close doors on unity government talks

Prime minister insists opportunity still there to expand coalition, but Zionist Union chief accuses him of slamming door

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the Knesset during a special plenum session marking Herzl Day on May 23, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the Knesset during a special plenum session marking Herzl Day on May 23, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and opposition leader Isaac Herzog faced off in the Knesset Monday, trading barbs over failed negotiations to bring the Zionist Union into the government, with Netanyahu insisting the “door was still open” to unity.

Herzog accused Netanyahu of “slamming the door” to negotiations, referring to coalition talks that fell apart last week, with Netanyahu turning to the Yisrael Beytenu faction to join his government instead.

The two rival party leaders spoke before parliament in a special session honoring the founder of Zionism, Theodor Herzl.

One of the sticking points between Likud and Zionist Union was reportedly Herzog’s role in restarting the defunct Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Addressing fears that the inclusion of the ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beytenu would harm peace efforts, Netanyahu said he informed the visiting French Prime Minister that he “seek[s] to advance the peace process” on the same terms he’s reiterated in the past: a demilitarized Palestinian state which recognizes Israel as the Jewish national homeland.

Isaac Herzog speaking in the Knesset on May 23, 2016. (screen capture: Knesset channel)
Isaac Herzog speaking in the Knesset on May 23, 2016. (screen capture: Knesset channel)

“I am prepared for bold steps with our neighbors, with the help of other partners in the region — Arab states with whom we’re making closer ties.”

“In order to ensure our ability to deal with various challenges and opportunities, I am working with all my power to expand the government,” he added, saying “the door is open to all who want to lend a hand to the betterment of the state.”

Herzog, who has faced an intense backlash from his party for his management of talks with Netanyahu, acknowledged he could lose his role as opposition leader.

He also swatted back at Netanyahu, saying he put his political career in jeopardy in order to try and join forces with Netanyahu and was spurned.

“I chose to endanger my internal political standing and extend a hand to the leader of a rival party in order to muster the available forces and change the present and future of our children,” Herzog said. “I opened the door to Benjamin Netanyahu, my bitter political rival, in order to extend him a hand determined [to fight in] the shared struggle against forces threatening the nation from within and without.”

“I’m sorry, Mr. Netanyahu, that you once again chose to zigzag. I’m sorry that you’re the one who slammed the door, that you chose to abandon the welfare of the state for the sake of your narrow political interests.”

Unexpectedly retaking the podium, Netanyahu rebutted by restating that “the door is open.”

The prime minister’s plea to parliament to form the broadest possible government came as coalition party leaders squabbled over a possible reshuffle of portfolios and budgets should Yisrael Beytenu join. Negotiations to bring Yisrael Beytenu into the governing coalition stood “deadlocked,” the party’s leader Avigdor Liberman announced on Monday afternoon.

Netanyahu insisted he was unfazed, stressing there was “no crisis,” and said he fully intended to widen his coalition “in the next few days.”

Earlier on Monday Herzog defended his handling of the abortive talks. He urged the faction — comprising his Labor Party and Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua — to unite against “the alliance of extremists” now leading Israel, “in order to fight for the future” of the country.

During the Knesset event, which marks the opening of the summer session of parliamentary work, Herzog and Livni could be seen engaged in an animated conversation, with Herzog hiding his mouth behind his hand.

Earlier in the day, Livni urged the faction to put aside its “internal preoccupations” and focus “on the struggle for the values of Israel.”

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