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Will Herzog join Netanyahu's government?

This Jewish year has been one of turbulence and political surprises, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu firing Ministers Tzipi Livni and Yair Lapid, launching elections and astonishingly also winning them.

On Sept. 13, Israelis celebrated Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. They dipped apples in honey to represent the sweet year that they hope to have, and they reflected on everything that had happened in the past year. The most prominent event was certainly Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s surprising victory in the March 17 elections.

On the eve of the previous New Year, Israelis were still licking their wounds after Operation Protective Edge (July-August 2014), including the 50 days during which Tel Aviv came under rocket attack even though the missiles were intercepted by the Iron Dome air defense system. At the time, Israelis had no idea that Netanyahu was fed up with his coalition partners — especially Finance Minister Yair Lapid and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni — and that he was planning to bring elections forward. In December 2014, he fired Lapid and Livni and called for early elections. It looked initially like just another maneuver straight out of the Netanyahu political playbook, intended to ensure him another term in office. What eventually transpired was something very different. Labor Party Chair Isaac Herzog joined forces with Hatnua Party leader Livni to create the Zionist Camp, a new party that soon began to gain momentum. During the last two months of the campaign, Netanyahu was sinking in the polls. Almost everyone, including Netanyahu himself, thought that he would lose the election. Israel seemed to be approaching the end of the Netanyahu era. 

Events in the homestretch threw cold water in the face of Israel’s center-left camp. Even the prime minister’s opponents admit that Netanyahu is the “Man of the Year” for the year. He extricated himself from the political grave that so many people had been digging for him and beat all the odds by winning the election. Most of all, Netanyahu proved yet again that there is no one in Israel’s current political constellation who poses a real threat to him. The big questions are What lies ahead for Netanyahu in the coming year? Where will he be a year from now? What is he planning?

Just a few weeks ago, there was another installment in the series of reports about secret meetings between Netanyahu and Herzog to bring the Zionist Camp into the government. The two men speak directly to each other, take advantage of anonymous intermediaries and occasionally even meet face to face. Some of these meetings have taken place in the home of celebrated Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan, who has spent years mediating and trying to bridge differences among Israel’s rival political camps. It is now clear that the last round of contacts was quite serious, as it resulted in the creation of a political “package” that was supposed to lead to the formation of a new government.

According to this information, Netanyahu agreed to give Herzog an impressive bundle of ministerial portfolios, including the foreign, justice and defense ministries. The agreement stated that the Zionist Camp would fill the posts in another year and a half, after the current government completes half a term. The transfer of the Defense Ministry at the midway point of the current term was supposed to be explicitly written into the agreement between the two parties so Netanyahu could not renege on his promises, as he is prone to do. The Justice Ministry would go to Shelly Yachimovich, the most powerful woman in the Zionist Camp, while the Foreign Ministry would be handed to Livni. Herzog would head the Defense Ministry. Diplomatic negotiations with the Palestinians would be renewed under Herzog and Livni, with Netanyahu making a commitment to enter into real negotiations, without any guile or games. This would allow for convening a broad regional peace conference, including representatives of the major Sunni states, with which Israel maintains a “quiet alliance” against the common Iranian threat.

There is one simple reason why nothing ever came of this deal. For now, at least, Herzog is incapable of giving Netanyahu what he really needs: assurance of a stable government until the end of the term. As far as the prime minister is concerned, bringing the Zionist Camp into the government would be perceived as a betrayal of the settler right, his traditional base, after it abandoned HaBayit HaYehudi leader Naftali Bennett at the very last minute to keep him in power. Netanyahu admits that if he does make such a move, it must be for the long term. He needs time if he is to succeed in replacing his voter base on the right with a similar or parallel base in the center. The problem is that in the coming year, Herzog will face re-election for the leadership of Labor, the major partner in the Zionist Camp. What good would a coalition agreement with Herzog be if he is deposed in a few months? Netanyahu has already had more than his fair share of similar disappointments. He has yet to forget how former Prime Minister Ehud Barak remained in his government without a party to back him up in 2011. That is why talks have been put on hold, and Herzog was sent to do his “homework.”

What Herzog is trying to do now is extend his term as leader of the Zionist Camp until the end of 2017. If he succeeds, Netanyahu would be considerably at ease. On the other hand, for such an extension to come to pass, Herzog will first need to overcome the opposition of Yachimovich, the potential opposition of Knesset member Amir Peretz, who is also considering a run for party leader, and even external attacks from Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai, who is also considering running.

Herzog — with the powerful support of Avi Nisenkorn, chairman of the Histadrut labor federation — is expected to convene the Labor Party’s Central Committee in early October to shoot for an extension. If that happens, there is a reasonable chance that Netanyahu’s current 61-seat coalition — which relies on the solid right, settlers and ultra-Orthodox — will be transformed into a centrist government. Under these circumstances, Herzog, Livni and Yachimovich would push Netanyahu back into the outstretched arms of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas as they try to restore Israel’s international legitimacy. Netanyahu is, in fact, very concerned about the renewal of anti-Israel boycott initiatives in the European Union and is prepared to change his skin to stave them off. Will he shed his old skin to initiate this change and rid himself of Bennett?

In talks with Herzog, Netanyahu refused to commit to removing Bennett from the government, preferring instead to say, “HaBayit HaYehudi Party would exit gradually.” First, he would take the Justice Ministry from his longtime enemy Ayelet Shaked. Then, once the diplomatic process is restarted, Bennett would reach the inevitable conclusion that his time is up. In response to these reports, HaBayit HaYehudi reportedly said Sept. 11, “If this happens, we will make Netanyahu’s life miserable from the outside.” This leaves everything up to Herzog.

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