With clock ticking, Herzog and Netanyahu move close to unity
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Analysis

With clock ticking, Herzog and Netanyahu move close to unity

The upcoming Knesset session and an offer from Egyptian President Sissi put pressure on the opposition leader to sign a deal now

Raoul Wootliff is the The Times of Israel's political correspondent.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shakes hands with opposition leader Isaac Herzog during a special plenum session marking the 50th anniversary of the Knesset, January 19, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shakes hands with opposition leader Isaac Herzog during a special plenum session marking the 50th anniversary of the Knesset, January 19, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

It was a brief and impromptu television appearance that lasted no more than five minutes and wasn’t meant to happen. But the mini-debate with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that Channel 2 anchor Rina Matzliach sprang on Isaac Herzog three days before the March 2015 election, and the amusing gaffe he made during the head-to head, turned into a bad joke. It would haunt the Zionist Union chief and now-opposition leader well after he left the studio and headed back onto the final stretch of the campaign trail.

During a series of conversations Matzliach was holding with the leaders of the major parties in the race, Netanyahu — interviewed in a live feed from his office immediately after Herzog, who was in the studio — was asked by Matzliach if he had any questions for his chief challenger before his interview began.

Netanyahu initially seemed ill at ease with his position but when pushed, easily slipped into a barrage of criticism against Herzog.

When he warned that Herzog may divide Jerusalem to appease Palestinians as part of a peace deal, Herzog said, “It is Netanyahu who is bringing Jerusalem into the debate, when no one is talking about dividing it. Every election he does this, giving rise to unnecessary international chatter.”

The Zionist Union leader then made an unfortunate blunder, vowing, under any circumstances, to “keep Netanyahu united” — while clearly intending to say “keep Jerusalem united.” Netanyahu sneered.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks to Channel 2 as Zionist Union head Isaac Herzog sits in the studio, March 14, 2015 (Channel 2 News)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks to Channel 2 as Zionist Union head Isaac Herzog sits in the studio, March 14, 2015 (Channel 2 News)

He did not seem to notice his mistake at the time, but Herzog, who days later saw his party trounced in the general election by Netanyahu’s Likud, would live to regret the snafu, as pundits and politicians tauntingly threw the words back at him every time his role as leader of the opposition tasked with presenting an alternative to the government came into question.

This week, as months of rumored talks with Netanyahu ripened into full-blown negotiations and the seemingly imminent formation of a unity government, Herzog, buffeted not just by the choppy coalition waters but by a storm brewing in his own party, again faces criticism that his efforts do nothing but “keep Netanyahu united.”

‘Now or never’

File: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Zionist Union leader MK Isaac Herzog in the Knesset, January 20, 2014. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog in the Knesset, January 20, 2014. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

A number of circumstances have come together in recent days to put pressure on both Netanyahu and Herzog to push ahead with a deal or risk losing the opportunity altogether.

According to sources in both Likud and Zionist Union, the sides are closer than ever, but gaps remain over ministerial positions and a number of key proposed government policies.

Asked by The Times of Israel if there were any ministerial positions Herzog was insisting upon, a spokesman for the Zionist Union chair refused to comment on specific demands. He also, however, did not deny rumors that Herzog is advancing moves to bring a possible deal before his party next week.

Netanyahu’s government currently has the slimmest possible Knesset majority, 61 out of 120 MKs. The Zionist Union has 24 MKs, of whom 19 are members of Herzog’s Labor and five of Hatnua, led by Tzipi Livni.

Some lawmakers have predicted an agreement by the end of Wednesday. One Zionist Union Knesset Member told The Times of Israel, “It’s now or never.”

Two weeks ago, for the first time, Netanyahu confirmed that he had held intensive talks with Herzog on forming a unity government. Since then, the rumor mill has ground on, producing daily reports of breakthroughs and setbacks.

A plenum session on the 20th Knesset, September 7, 2015 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
A plenum session on the 20th Knesset, September 7, 2015 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

But the advent of the Knesset summer session next Monday, and unexpected moves linked to the upcoming Middle East peace summit to be held in France, have added an urgency, bringing the negotiations to a head.

While no specific technicality would prevent a coalition deal from being made after the end of the Knesset recess, the nature of the parliamentary work ahead would present several complications likely to push the sides far apart.

To start with, one Zionist Union lawmaker pointed out, at the opening ceremony of the session at 4 p.m. Monday, Herzog needs to deliver a speech in his role as head of the opposition.

“How can he present an anti-government agenda if he’s still coddling Netanyahu behind closed doors?” asked the MK, who has expressed reservations about joining the government.

With a whiff of a veiled threat, a Likud source said that criticizing the government during Herzog’s speech would end any negotiations “instantly.”

If Herzog did manage to successfully navigate the speech, he would then face a thorny legislative agenda presented by the more nationalist elements within the coalition. Already on the table is a proposal to ban Knesset members who actively work against the State of Israel — panned by many as an attempt to oust Arab MKs — and a bill that would obligate NGOs to declare their foreign funding, the primary source of income for many left-wing human rights organizations.

Netanyahu is also reportedly using the threat of these bills as not only a stick but a carrot, offering Zionist Union veto power over any government proposals, according to Army Radio.

But the biggest carrot Netanyahu can offer Herzog is a role in bringing Israel back to the negotiating table with the Palestinians and returning the two-state solution to the forefront of public discourse.

‘Holding the wheel’

Last Thursday, Herzog, in a Facebook post (Hebrew), laid out his demands for joining the government, saying, “To sit there without holding the wheel does not interest me.”

“If I receive a mandate to stop the next procession of funerals [by avoiding another war], to bring to a halt the threat posed by the international boycott movement [against Israel], to fix ties with the US and Europe, to launch negotiations with regional countries and to separate from the Palestinians in the form of two states to stop the ongoing terror wave — then I’ll know that my hands are on the wheel,” Herzog said.

With that in mind, multiple Israeli media reports on Tuesday linked an appeal for renewed Israeli-Palestinian peace talks by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi to the coalition talks between Zionist Union and Likud.

Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi in Cairo on April 17, 2016 (AFP/Khaled Desouki)
Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi in Cairo on April 17, 2016 (AFP/Khaled Desouki)

Throwing his support behind the French initiative to hold a Middle East peace summit next month, Sissi said he saw a “real opportunity” for an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement that would also lead to warmer ties between Egypt and the Jewish state. His address was lauded by Netanyahu and Herzog alike, with the former saying Israel was “ready” for peace.

Zionist Union sources on Tuesday night suggested Sissi had coordinated his appeal for Israeli-Palestinian peace with the Israeli government in an effort to sway Likud and Zionist Union to form a unity coalition.

The suggestion that Sissi is somehow involved in pressuring Herzog to join the coalition may be too far-fetched for reality, but the offer does present Netanyahu with an opportunity and Herzog with a time limit.

Receiving the foreign minister post currently held by Netanyahu himself, and with it responsibility over Israel’s response to the French initiative, would allow Herzog to claim he has successfully influenced the government to pursue peace.

Waiting until next week could again jeopardize the offer, with French Prime Minister Manuel Valls set to arrive in Israel on Sunday. Last week Netanyahu, during a visit by French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, said the French lacked impartiality over the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

Leaving Netanyahu to his own devices with Valls could end talk of Israeli involvement in a regional conference, and with it, Herzog’s claimed raison d’etre for a unity government.

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