How Tony Blair and Egypt's Sissi Tried to Push Zionist Union Into Netanyahu's Coalition

Blair mediated between the prime minister and Herzog, while updating John Kerry, and also initiated the Egyptian president’s speech urging Israel to move forward in the peace process with the Palestinians.

Netanyahu (right) meets with Middle East Quartet envoy Tony Blair at the Prime Minister's residence in Jerusalem.
Kobi Gideon / GPO

A list of international figures led by Tony Blair were behind a failed move designed to legitimize the addition of the Zionist Union to the Israeli ruling coalition, a move practically unprecedented in terms of massive international intervention in Israeli politics.

Two sources in the Israeli political system say that Blair, the former British prime minister and representative of the Quartet, while coordinating and updating opposition leader Isaac Herzog, is the one who pushed and encouraged Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi’s speech on Tuesday in which he called on Israeli political parties to agree on the need to advance the framework for peace with the Palestinians.

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Although he ended his stint as Quartet representative to the Middle East months ago, Blair continued to act independently to restart peace process between Israel and the Palestinians, and Israel and the Arab world. Blair visited Israel and other countries in the region every two or three weeks, almost always meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as well as Herzog, updating them on his talks with Arab leaders.

Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi delivers his speech at the lower house of parliament in Tokyo, Monday, Feb. 29, 2016.
Koji Sasahara/ AP

His consistent message in these meetings was that Sunni Arab nations are willing and prepared for a breakthrough in relations with Israel, but it depended on steps Israel took in the West Bank and Gaza to demonstrate advancement of the two-state solution.

Political sources involved in the matter said that in recent weeks, against the backdrop of Netanyahu and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon’s agreement on passing a two-year budget (instead of one year at a time), Blair realized that the Israeli government would stand firm until 2019. Blair thought the only way to advance a diplomatic move between Israel and the Palestinians, with the involvement of Arab nations, would be to bring the Zionist Union into the coalition.

A few weeks ago, while there was contact between Herzog and Netanyahu, Blair began holding talks with the two, trying to forge a common agenda to advance a regional diplomatic move after the Zionist Union joined the government. Herzog spoke of a “rare regional opportunity” to advance the peace process.

Blair’s involvement in the talks between Netanyahu and Herzog was revealed Wednesday night by Ayala Hason on Channel 10.

Last week, while visiting Cairo, Blair worked on recruiting senior Egyptian figures to the plan. One political source says Blair is the one who suggested that Sissi make a speech with a message to the Israeli people and their political parties about the need to move forward in the peace process with the Palestinians. According to the source, Blair’s activity vis-à-vis the Egyptian presidential office was fully coordinated with Herzog.

Blair also coordinated with Kerry, informing him of the talks with Herzog and Netanyahu. A political source tells that subsequent to Blair’s actions, Kerry considered putting off publishing the Quartet’s report until he knew whether the Zionist Union would join the coalition. U.S. officials, however, denied this claim. The report, to be published on May 25, two days after the Knesset’s summer session begins, is expected to level biting criticism on settlement construction.

After visiting Cairo, Blair came to Israel and met with Netanyahu and Herzog again, also working on helping Herzog garner support inside the Zionist Union for joining the government. Blair tried to schedule a meeting with Zionist Union chairwoman Tzipi Livni, but her office said she was in mourning for her brother. Blair insisted and did meet Livni in the early hours of the morning at her Tel Aviv home, presenting the move he was trying to put together.

Until Tuesday afternoon, all was going according to Blair’s plan. Sissi gave the speech with the messages Blair had coordinated with Egypt. Herzog hastened to announce that he applauded the speech and said that Israel should not miss the diplomatic opportunity. A few minutes later, Netanyahu also made an announcement welcoming Sissi’s remarks and saying he was willing to cooperate with a diplomatic move led by Egypt.

But in the following hours, talks between Netanyahu and Herzog started to fall apart and finally collapsed just after midnight.

Herzog claims the talks failed because Netanyahu refused to provide written versions of the understandings they had reached over settlement construction and negotiations with the Palestinians, the two elements that were supposed to enable the regional move with the Arab nations. Likud sources say Netanyahu realized that Herzog did not have the backing of a majority of his Knesset faction for joining the coalition, and didn’t want to take the risk of making such far-reaching diplomatic undertakings.

“Neither Blair, Sissi nor Herzog could understand how Netanyahu wound up going with Lieberman,” said a political source. “Blair thought he could engineer the Netanyahu government and Herzog counted on the international embrace that Blair arranged for getting him into the government. It didn’t work.”

U.S. State Department spokesman John Kirby said: "Secretary Kerry played no role in the Israeli domestic political matters described in this article, in President Sissi's decision to give a speech this week, or in delaying the upcoming Quartet report, which is not yet complete."

Blair’s office did not wish to comment. Herzog’s office also declined to comment.