Senior Likud Official: In Unity Government, Zionist Union Would Handle Peace Talks

Official reveals details of possible unity deal, says Herzog would be named foreign minister if center-left party decides to join Netanyahu's government.

Opposition leader Isaac Herzog and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
Marc Israel Salem and Moti Milrod

Reports that the criminal investigation of Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog is to be closed are again prompting expectations over the possibility that the Zionist Union might join Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud-led government.

A knowledgeable Likud source said there is no real need for formal negotiations because the outlines of a national unity government involving the two parties are clear and would give the Zionist Union responsibility for the peace process, among other matters. Herzog's office denied the report, calling it a "spin."

The plan is understood to include a promise to upgrade the status of about 15 of the Zionist Union's 24 Knesset members, with seven or eight of them being given cabinet posts. Others would be appointed deputy ministers, three would be chairpersons of Knesset committees and two deputy chairpersons. Herzog would be expected to assume the role that his Zionist Union co-leader Tzipi Livni had in Netanyahu's last government as chief peace negotiator with the Palestinians. In Herzog's case, he would also be expected to be appointed to the coveted post of foreign minister.

But Likud is also expected to make two demands that will be difficult for the Zionist Union to accept: The government's current policy guidelines would not be substantially altered and the right-wing Habayit Hayehudi would not be removed from the governing coalition. Likud officials think it is possible, however, that Habayit Hayehudi, which is headed by Education Minister Naftali Bennett, might choose to go into opposition if the Zionist Union joined the government.

Herzog knows the terms that Likud is offering for such a unity government, the Likud source said, and the decision is now his to make. The source denied, however, that the Zionist Union had been on the verge of joining the government and that the process was halted over an investigation of Herzog's electoral funding in his race to head the Labor Party, the larger of the two parties that, along with Livni's Hatnuah, makes up the Zionist Union. The Zionist Union was directly contemplating joining the government when the case against Herzog broke open last month, the source claimed.

Herzog could very well find allies in his own party that might want to pave the way to ratifying Labor's joining the government. And the fact that a large number of Zionist Union Knesset members would get promoted to higher level jobs might also make them more likely to support the formation of a national unity government.

But despite optimism among Netanyahu's associates that such a prospect could be in the offing, Herzog's associates were still rejecting the possibility out of hand on Sunday. And in recent weeks, Herzog's co-leader of the Zionist Union, Tzipi Livni, has told her supporters in no uncertain terms that she would oppose such a move. Other lawmakers have voiced similar reservations.

In response, Herzog's office called the report "a spin" and a "Likud rumor" and vowed to continue to fight to replace Netanyahu's government.