Obama Could Force Netanyahu to Bring Herzog Into His Coalition

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would love a narrow coalition, but global pressure may force him to consider the unthinkable.

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
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President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, pictured together in 2010.
President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, pictured together in 2010.Credit: Reuters
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

About a month ago, this writer quoted an individual close to Benjamin Netanyahu as saying that the prime minister feared an electoral victory more than a defeat. Not because of the difficulties of coalition building, but for fear of the world. Not a week has passed since Election Day and U.S. President Barack Obama is alluding to the need for a “reassessment” – the diplomatic doomsday weapon – of the Israeli-U.S. relationship, and accused Netanyahu of eroding Israeli democracy.

Obama’s statements, in an interview with The Huffington Post website on Saturday, were intended not only to make Netanyahu sweat, and sweat hard. They made painfully clear that if he establishes a coalition government with the support of 67 MKs, including Habayit Hayehudi, Yisrael Beiteinu and the ultra-Orthodox parties, he sets himself on an immediate, fatal collision course with the entire international community, headed by the United States.

At 8 P.M. this Wednesday, Netanyahu will arrive at the President’s Residence and accept the sought-after mandate from President Reuven Rivlin. Official negotiations with the various factions will begin the next day. The secret, invisible back channels are already hard at work. There is no channel to Zionist Union coleader Isaac Herzog, nary a feeler. The lines there are silent.

However, as of today, the working assumption of politicians is this: If Netanyahu decides that he wants to build a bridge over that “ideological chasm” between Likud and Zionist Union, he will have to take the following actions:

1. Offer Herzog the Foreign Ministry and MK Shelly Yacimovich the Finance Ministry. Not to Prof. Manuel Trajtenberg – the latter’s candidacy for the treasury post was merely an election ploy. Yacimovich is the key. Without her backing, the Labor Central Committee will give Herzog a resounding no, and about half the Labor slate will say they do not see themselves as members of such a coalition.

True, two years ago Yacimovich turned down the treasury. But back then, under her leadership Labor had 15 seats. Today, with 24 seats, it’s a different opera. She has also had her fill of the opposition. To prepare herself for the premiership in the future, she must get some ministerial experience on that résumé.

2. Netanyahu will have to make a number of far-reaching diplomatic moves, opposed to everything he vowed during the election campaign. He has already backtracked from his opposition to a Palestinian state, two days after the election. Can he do it? Does he want to? Only he knows. But that is an irrefutable condition for a broad coalition.

3. Netanyahu and Herzog will have to find a suitable solution for Zionist Union coleader MK Tzipi Livni. She will have a hard time finding herself once again in the Justice Ministry and in charge of diplomatic negotiations – obviously this time with Herzog – after having inhaled the fresh mountain air of that premiership rotation, which petered out the day before the election.

A move of the type described here would be hard to make and full of risks – for all sides. Netanyahu must first of all exhaust the option of a narrow coalition, if only to tell his voters, “I tried, but the demands of the partners were impossible, they were full of chutzpah.” By then it might be too late to turn to Herzog, who may not want to save Netanyahu. And even if he does, he might not be able to.

Here’s another supposition: People close to the prime minister said on Sunday that Netanyahu is amusing himself with the idea of doing what Likud Prime Minister Menachem Begin did in 1977, and appoint a surprise candidate, from the heart of the rival party, as foreign minister – something that would make the establishment of a national unity government unnecessary.

The man Begin brought in was Moshe Dayan, a senior Labor Party figure. The two of them, together with Ezer Weizman, created the peace deal with Egypt. The analogy to our time is solely the responsibility of the reader.

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