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Why Israeli opposition head really wanted to join Bibi's government

News of the Aqaba summit and the political and diplomatic events surrounding it lead to the inevitable conclusion that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has no interest in the two-state vision and a regional peace initiative.
Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and Isaac Herzog, co-leader of the Zionist Union party, are pictured together as campaign billboards rotate in Tel Aviv, March 9, 2015. REUTERS/Baz Ratner/File Photo - RTSEUAF

As he stood before the members of his Knesset faction at their weekly meeting Feb. 20, Zionist Camp leader Isaac Herzog could finally explain why he was so eager to join the Netanyahu government last year.

Just one day earlier, Haaretz newspaper revealed that a secret summit had been held in Aqaba in March 2016. Participants included US Secretary of State John Kerry, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, King Abdullah II of Jordan and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. At this four-person meeting, Kerry presented a regional peace initiative that was intended to put Israel and the Palestinians back on the negotiating track, under the patronage of other states in the region. It was on the basis of this initiative that Netanyahu entered into secretive but very advanced talks with Herzog. The goal of those talks was to bring the Zionist Camp into the government, with Herzog being given the Foreign Ministry and the portfolio for negotiations with the Palestinians.

These talks between Netanyahu and Herzog ended dramatically when Yisrael Beitenu Chairman Avigdor Liberman entered the government as its minister of defense at the end of May 2016. Herzog was subjected to a barrage of mockery from senior members of his own party, many of whom called for his immediate resignation. He was charged with inflicting a mortal wound on the party by crawling on all fours to the right-wing government, only to be humiliated by Netanyahu, who preferred Liberman over him. This was the high-water mark for Herzog as leader of the opposition. Ever since then, his political career, according to polls, has been crashing down.

Only this week, after many difficult months, could the Zionist Camp leader stand firm against the other members of his faction and tell them that "Israel was faced with a historic opportunity to enter into a dramatic diplomatic process." In an interview with Channel 10 one evening earlier, on Feb. 19, Herzog told his audience that he and Netanyahu were already exchanging draft agreements: "This document would have changed the entire face of the Middle East. In the end, it was Netanyahu who backed off and ran."

It is highly doubtful whether news of the Aqaba summit will be enough to resuscitate Herzog politically. While in retrospect, the publication of the Aqaba summit offers a moral explanation for Herzog's eagerness to join the Netanyahu government, it also places a huge question mark over how he acted throughout the incident. No matter how anyone looks at it, Herzog was a pawn in Netanyahu's hands. The prime minister used him, played him and sacrificed him just as soon as he could bring Liberman into his government. After all, Netanyahu had already signaled as early as right after the election that Liberman was a natural partner for the right-wing camp.

Actually, Herzog was eager to join the Netanyahu government as foreign minister immediately after the 2015 election. As far as he was concerned, the existence of just such a diplomatic process was the only way he could legitimize bringing his party into the Netanyahu government. Netanyahu was having a hard time, managing a very narrow coalition of just 61 members, and his government's very existence was in jeopardy. This forced him to act retroactively in an effort to expand it. Was Netanyahu really interested in forging a partnership with Herzog and advancing a regional peace initiative? Based on his actions and behavior, it seems quite clear that he wasn't. That is why he put an end to the initiative at the first possible opportunity. With that, he also put an end to Herzog's chances to join his government.

A re-creation of the political and diplomatic events of May 2016 (coalition talks, Sisi and Herzog’s speeches, Liberman’s appointment) presents Netanyahu as knowingly leading Herzog along by the nose while doing everything he could to kill Kerry's peace initiative. In hindsight, Kerry, Abdullah and Sisi had every reason to believe that Netanyahu could be convinced to join their efforts. After all, he was already in the middle of coalition negotiations with Herzog, based on their regional peace initiative. They knew this in real time, not least through conversations they had with the Zionist Camp leader himself.

Herzog believed Netanyahu. In a meeting with Labor Party (main Zionist Camp partner) activists on May 15, he hinted that something big was in the works: "I have identified a rare diplomatic opportunity for the region that may yet pass, never to return. … I'm not making this up. I know it for a fact. There is nothing quite as complicated as this. It is very complex. I don’t know whether it will happen or not, but if it does happen, there will have to be a change in the composition of the current government first."

A speech by Sisi on May 17 made the headlines in Israel. In it he called on "the Israeli leadership and parties" to "reach an agreement so a solution can be found," thus providing Herzog with the backing he needed. The fact that both Herzog and Netanyahu were quick to congratulate Sisi bolstered assessments that the Zionist Camp was closer to joining the government than ever. At this point, Herzog was convinced that he was on his way into the government. The bomb dropped the very next day when he learned that Netanyahu had reached a deal with Liberman, paving the way for the chairman of Yisrael Beitenu to join the coalition and take over the Defense Ministry.

This was a resounding blow for Herzog. He realized that Netanyahu had deceived him. Instead of becoming foreign minister, he was turned into the target of ridicule in his own party. At that very moment, Herzog became a lame duck.

Disclosure of the Aqaba summit and a re-creation of the political and diplomatic events surrounding it provide an opportunity to assess the way Netanyahu reacts to all matters pertaining to the diplomatic process with the Palestinians. The inevitable conclusion is that despite all his official statements that he supports a two-state solution and a regional peace initiative, he really does not. He is simply creating a smoke screen for tactical, political and diplomatic reasons.

That's what happened during his second term. Back then, the Labor Party under Ehud Barak was an integral part of his government; nevertheless, nothing happened. The same thing happened again during his third term when (former Ministers) Tzipi Livni and Yair Lapid were both part of his government. At the time, Israel was even engaged in direct negotiations with the Palestinians. The same thing is happening now, with Netanyahu in his fourth term.

If Netanyahu were really and truly interested in making progress with the Palestinians and reaching a historic agreement with them, he would bring Herzog into his government and try to advance a regional peace process at the very least. Instead, he chooses to have Liberman by his side.

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