Rivlin Mediating Between Netanyahu, Herzog Over Possible Unity Government

Sources say talks between Likud and Zionist Union have been underway for several weeks, but have gained momentum after Iran nuclear deal.

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Illustration by Amos Biderman.
Illustration by Amos Biderman.

The leaders of Likud and Zionist Union have been discussing the possibility of forming a unity government for the past few weeks, Likud sources said Wednesday.

The talks are reportedly being mediated by President Reuven Rivlin, who has been transferring oral messages between the two party leaders and updating each on the thinking of the other.

Sources described the talks as “general” and said that no written texts had been exchanged as yet.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Wednesday spoke publicly of his desire to cooperate with opposition leader Isaac Herzog, following the agreement with Iran. “In issues pertaining to Israel’s survival there’s no coalition and no opposition,” he said in the Knesset. “We need a uniform front to ensure our survival and future. In this matter, Jabotinsky’s students must join hands with Ben-Gurion’s students.”

Herzog has denied any intention of joining the coalition, but a Likud source said talks have been ongoing for several weeks.

“The time is ripe for a unity government, mainly following the deal with Iran,” the source said. “We believe Zionist Union won’t object to entering the coalition.”

A senior Zionist Union source speculated that the overtures were “apparently intended to pressure [Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor] Lieberman to join the coalition or to quieten the coalition partners’ money demands. Netanyahu wants to create the illusion that he has an alternative to the existing coalition.”

According to the rumors, one of the main obstacles to forming a unity government is Herzog’s demand that Habayit Hayehudi be ousted from the coalition. “Herzog recently removed this obstacle by signalling he’d agree to keep [Habayit Hayehudi leader] Naftali Bennett in the coalition,” a source familiar with the talks told Haaretz.

If the move comes to pass, Netanyahu could give the Foreign Affairs and Defense portfolios to Zionist Union, the source said.

Meretz chairwoman Zehava Galon confirmed Wednesday that Zionist Union had been talking with Likud about entering the coalition and could do so within a few days. “I know Zionist Union is on its way to the government,” Galon told Army Radio. “They’re using the Iranian agreement as a peg. Herzog will help the government explain the agreement’s flaws,” she said.

Herzog dismissed Galon’s statement and said “It’s simply ridiculous.” His aides issued an official statement earlier calling Galon’s remarks “utter nonsense.”

Political pundits said Herzog wants to join the coalition for two reasons – his belief that it would help him postpone Labor’s leadership primaries, which are due in less than a year, and his feeling that he isn’t making the most of himself as opposition leader.

In his Knesset speech after the Iran deal was announced, Herzog agreed with Netanyahu that it endangered Israel’s security, but inisisted that his party would assist the government from the opposition benches.

Netanyahu invited Herzog for a briefing following the announcement that an agreement had been reached in Vienna on Tuesday.

In contrast to the spirit of cooperation between Netanyahu and Herzog, Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid lambasted Netanyahu at the opening session of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. “We stand today facing the greatest failure of an Israeli prime minister’s foreign policy since the state’s establishment,” he said. “Netanyahu isn’t Churchill before WWII, he’s Golda [Meir] after the Yom Kippur War.”

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