A united front is taking shape within Zionist Union against the possibility that its chairman, Isaac Herzog, will lead the faction into Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s governing coalition. And while senior Labor figures expressed the expectation that former party chairwoman Shelly Yacimovich might lead the process of joining the coalition, Yacimovich told supporters that she would not join a Netanyahu government.
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Herzog and Yacimovich wield considerable power in Labor’s central committee and would be capable of pushing through a decision to join a national unity government even in the face of opposition from other members of their Knesset faction. Yacimovich insists, however, that her plan is to fight Netanyahu’s narrow coalition from the opposition benches.
“I needed a short amount of time to become encouraged, filled with optimism and a fighting spirit," she acknowledged in a newsletter to her supporters.
“Netanyahu’s government nightmare, a coalition of 61 Knesset members in which every bastard is a king, is an amazing opportunity for an effective ideological opposition,” she stated, adding, “The power currently in the hands of the opposition is greater than that of the coalition. It obligates us to being prepared, and to be diligent and a continuous presence in the Knesset, fighting for everything that is dear and important to us.”
Likud sources have said they believe that if Netanyahu wants Herzog in, he will offer him an attractive package. One such source said that Netanyahu would likely insist that Herzog’s Labor Party join the coalition without Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah – the other party on the Zionist Union joint ticket.
“But in exchange," said the source, the prime minister "is likely to give eight ministries to Labor MKs, work toward some kind of diplomatic agreement [with the Palestinians], and maybe even offer a rotation for the fourth year,” meaning Herzog would become prime minister if the government lasted that long.
After Livni herself came out on Sunday against joining the narrow Netanyahu-led coalition, senior Labor officials publicly voiced their objections to joining the government. They included Knesset faction chairman Eitan Cabel, and Knesset members Merav Michaeli, Itzik Shmuli and Erel Margalit.
At a Knesset faction meeting last week, Herzog rejected a suggestion by Amir Peretz that a vote be held over joining the government. Many in the party viewed Herzog’s stance as an attempt to leave the option of entering the coalition open.
Now, just days before Netanyahu’s new government is expected to be sworn in, a number of Zionist Union Knesset members and senior party figures are still not convinced Herzog has ruled out the option entirely.
In private conversations, the senior party figures unequivocally oppose joining the government and take Herzog to task for what they see as a lack of clarity in his conduct up to now.
Referring to a senior Likud campaign figure and adviser to Netanyahu, one Zionist Union official said: “Nir Hefetz is declaring on behalf of the prime minister that he is reserving the foreign minister’s position for Herzog, and we don’t know whether we are on the outside or ultimately on the inside.”
Many Labor MKs also fear that as long as speculation about their party joining the government persists, Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid will to overshadow Herzog in the opposition with respect to certain issues – such as enlargement of the coalition, which was being discussed Monday in the Knesset and seems likely, and agreements with the ultra-Orthodox parties – which Herzog did not immediately criticize.
“Lapid’s campaign against the Labor Party and his claims that we don’t really want to be in opposition worked very well on us,” said one Labor MK, who added: “It put Herzog and the party leadership under pressure. Lapid managed to appeal to the genuine feelings of the public and leave us unnoticed and invisible.”
Herzog himself acknowledged in an interview with Israel Radio Sunday that he had “looked into the feasibility of creating an alternative” to the coalition that’s slated to be sworn in later this week, and had “maintained ambiguity” in part “to preserve flexibility within the political arena.” Nevertheless, he added, “it’s obviously complete nonsense to conclude from this that we’re not an opposition.”
At a meeting of activists in Givatayim on Sunday, Shmuli attacked the fact that his party hadn’t unequivocally ruled out joining the government and MK Rosenthal, one of the most vocal opponents of such a move, echoed that sentiment.
MK Margalit said he believed such an option is simply no longer a possibility. “You have to understand that this chapter is over. Netanyahu chose to set up a narrow, right-wing, nationalist and from my standpoint very problematic government. He views those colleagues as his natural partners and that’s his choice.”
For her part, MK Michaeli spoke of the importance of her party’s role in fighting any "scandalous legislation" the next Knesset will discuss.
Herzog’s office issued a statement reiterating again that the party leader has said that he will not enter this coalition or “come to the rescue of a government of national failure established through a clearance sale of public funds.”