Herzog: Unity Government 'Rare Opportunity' to Boost Israel's Mideast Ties

Opposition to becoming part of Netanyahu's coalition remains strong within Zionist Union party.

Isaac Herzog, April 18, 2016.
Ilan Assayag

Zionist Union’s entry into the coalition could help Israel take advantage of a "rare" opportunity to improve its relations with other Mideast countries, party leader Isaac Herzog said Sunday.

“I have identified a rare regional diplomatic opportunity that may lapse and not return,” Herzog told dozens of party activists at a parlor meeting.

“I don’t say this based on nothing, but based on knowledge," he added. "I don’t know if it will happen. But it could be that it will happen only due to a change in the government’s composition.”

Herzog offered no details about the alleged diplomatic opportunity. But he stressed that if it’s okay for his party to negotiate with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, then it’s also okay for it to negotiate with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Herzog said his talks with Netanyahu on entering the government began immediately after the March 2015 election and have continued to this day. Zionist Union could have joined at any time, he added, but he decided not to do so unless it would lead to “a dramatic, historic change in direction.”

He also slammed party colleagues who have spoken to the media about the emerging deal with Netanyahu, saying they don’t know what they’re talking about.

“I’m acting responsibly,” he said. “I can’t speak outside [the negotiations] and I can’t sell stories to people, and I can’t invent all kinds of fairy tales like those I hear from our MKs, who don’t have any idea what’s on the agenda.”

But opposition to joining the government remains strong within Herzog’s party. Few sitting Knesset members attended the meeting, but MK Ayelet Nahmias-Verbin, who did, argued against entering the government, saying that doing so wouldn’t reduce the rightist Habayit Hayehudi party’s influence in the coalition. And former minister Ephraim Sneh said the party should condition joining the government on three principles that would ensure its influence: full control over diplomatic issues; a freeze on construction in West Bank settlements; and the ability to veto controversial bills.

Dozens of Labor Party members who oppose joining the government protested outside Herzog’s home in Tel Aviv on Saturday night. “Replace Bibi, don’t serve him,” said Naama Lazimi, who organized the demonstration.

Lazimi, who is running to lead Labor’s youth wing in alliance with Shelly Yacimovich and Amir Peretz, added, “Joining a cruel, right-wing extremist government will lose the faith of the public and constitute a mortal blow to the party.”