Substantial Progress Reported in Talks to Bring Center-left Party Into Netanyahu's Government

Zionist Union set to get eight portfolios, including Foreign Ministry and ability to lead peace talks, Israel's Chanel 10 says; sources confirm report to Haaretz; Herzog denies talks.

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

After weeks of rumors, substantial progress has reportedly been made in talks to form a unity government in Israel, Channel 10 news reported Tuesday. According to the report, the center-left Zionist Union party will join Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud-led government in exchange for eight portfolios, including the highly coveted Foreign Ministry.

The report was confirmed to Haaretz by sources in both parties. But chairman of the opposition and head of the Zionist Union, Isaac Herzog, denied it. In a message sent out to party members on Tuesday, Herzog called the report "baseless," stating there have been no contacts with Likud over the Rosh Hashanah holiday as the report claimed. Likud also officially denied the report.

According to a source privy to the talks, Herzog has met with lawmakers and officials from his party in recent days to try to convince them to join the government. Herzog told the lawmakers that there is currently an unprecedented opportunity to lead a diplomatic process in the Middle East, and it cannot be missed. Herzog also said that he is unwavering in his demand that the Zionist Union receive the Culture Ministry from the Likud's Miri Regev.

According to a senior official in the Zionist Union, opposition to the move within the party has weakened, and the new government could form within a month when the Knesset returns from its summer recess.

Sources in the Likud noted that Netanyahu needs the Zionist Union and a diplomatic process to stave off attempts by Palestinians to push through a resolution in the UN after the elections in the U.S. in November, but before U.S. President Obama leaves office in January 2017.

Netanyahu does not want Israel to go into any international summit on peace without Herzog in the government as he fears his right-wing partners will quit, sending Israel to a snap election.

Moreover, coalition tensions have been simmering recently over the planned demolition of Amona, an illegal West Bank outpost that Israel's top court ruled must be dismantled. The possibility of a coalition rebellion has left Netanyahu wanting a new partner in government to strengthen his position when the demolition takes place in December.

The Zionist Union is combined of two smaller parties – the larger and historically significant Labor Party and the newer centrist Hatnua party, led by Israel's former chief negotiator and foreign minister Tzipi Livni. Herzog is reportedly trying to woo Livni into the unity government by offering her the Foreign Ministry. If she agrees, he will serve as deputy prime minister, chief negotiator and he will be put in charge of the Ministry of Regional Development.

Regarding the new division of portfolios and ministries, the Zionist Union will get the following ministries: Foreign, Culture and Sport, Agriculture, and either the Economy or Housing ministries, in addition to four other yet unknown portfolios.

Regev, currently Israel's culture minister, will lose her spot, but will enjoy a promotion within the Likud's ranks, and will become a security cabinet member in addition to receiving another cabinet portfolio.