PM, Herzog ‘held secret coalition talks, swapped draft agreements’

Negotiations to form unity government were frozen after Labor head hit by graft claims, according to media report

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)

Likud and the opposition’s Zionist Union had been in advanced stages of talks to form a coalition government prior to the announcement of a corruption probe into Zionist Union chief Isaac Herzog, Haaretz reported Thursday.

Herzog and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had been holding secret talks for months, according to the report, and the sides had even swapped draft agreements.

The talks were said to have intensified over the past few weeks, up until police announced the investigation into Herzog’s finances during primary elections for Labor, the largest of the two parties that make up the Zionist Union faction.

Herzog and Netanyahu had expected to reach an agreement by the end of next month and to present a unity government in time for the summer legislative session, according to the excerpted report. The paper was set to publish the full article on Friday.

According to the paper, gaps remained between the two sides, including Herzog’s demand that Naftali Bennett’s ultra-nationalist Jewish Home party be removed from the coalition — a demand said to have been rejected by Netanyahu — and disagreement over the shape of the diplomatic process with the Palestinians.

The talks took place via representatives for each side, Haaretz said.

Herzog’s office did not confirm or deny the report, telling Haaretz: “There was some running around on the part of many people in the past year, who tried to advance contacts for unity, and it didn’t ripen into anything substantial.”

Minister of Public Security Gilad Erdan attends a meeting of the Knesset Internal Affairs committee, February 9, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Minister of Public Security Gilad Erdan attends a meeting of the Knesset Internal Affairs committee, February 9, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The report came hours after Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan warned that the government could fall over a likely failure to pass a budget and called on the Zionist Union faction to “show responsibility” and enter a national unity coalition.

MK Eitan Cabel, a key Zionist Union organizer who chairs the Knesset Economy Committee, denied Thursday that there was any talk of a unity government.

File: Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
File: Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon of Kulanu, who has been pushing for a unity government, had alluded Wednesday to the existence of negotiations to that end between Netanyahu and Herzog.

Commenting on the rash of speculations, Erdan told Army Radio on Thursday that while he was not party to any secret talks, “I know there is a desire to broaden the government… A government of 61 MKs [in a Knesset of 120 lawmakers] must try all the time to achieve more stability.”

He said there was no argument about that within the Likud, and that if the coalition remained unchanged, “it will be very hard to pass a budget, certainly a two-year budget, so the government won’t be able to remain for much longer.”

“I hope,” he continued, “that the [Zionist Union] or other parties will show responsibility and join the government, because there’s no point going to elections at the moment.”

Knesset Economics Committee Chair MK Eitan Cabel (Zionist Union) in a committee meeting about the controversial natural gas deal, December 2, 2015. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Knesset Economics Committee Chair MK Eitan Cabel (Zionist Union) in a committee meeting about the controversial natural gas deal, December 2, 2015. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Cabel, who is seen as a possible challenger to Herzog for the leadership of the party, has been adamant in his opposition to a unity coalition with Likud. “We can’t go into a government just because they offered us ministerial positions,” he told Army Radio on Wednesday.

At the end of last month, Herzog was named as a second senior Israeli lawmaker suspected of graft, a day after Interior Minister Aryeh Deri — who spent several years in prison for embezzlement — revealed he was again at the center of a major corruption investigation.

Rumors about a looming unity government have waxed and waned since last year’s elections.

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