Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during his Likud party faction meeting at the Knesset, Israeli parliament, in Jerusalem May 23, 2016.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during his Likud party faction meeting at the Knesset, Israeli parliament, in Jerusalem May 23, 2016.
Ronen Zvulun / Reuters

In the early morning hours of May 8, 2012, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Kadima party chief Shaul Mofaz dropped a bombshell on the Israeli political system by announcing the formation of a national unity government. Kadima’s shocking entry into the Netanyahu government—only weeks earlier, Mofaz had stated that “the current government represents all that is wrong with Israel,” asking “Why should we join it?"—swelled the coalition’s ranks to a historic 94-seat majority in the 120-seat Knesset. Early elections that had been expected for that fall were thought to be put off indefinitely; the media, with some reason, took to calling the prime minister “King Bibi.”

The Netanyahu-Mofaz union was the last instance of a national unity government in Israel. It lasted less than 90 days and effectively ended Mofaz’s political career. Perhaps willfully ignoring that recent history, Israeli opposition leader and Labor party chairman Isaac “Boujie” Herzog entered into serious talks with Netanyahu about joining the current government—talks that blew up in Herzog’s face last week, when Netanyahu made a last minute volte-face and nearly closed a deal to bring his former foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman’s right-wing Israel Beitenu party into the coalition.

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Isaac Herzog, co-leader of the Zionist Union party, are pictured together as campaign billboards rotate in Tel Aviv, March 9, 2015.
Baz Ratner / Reuters
Herzog’s public standing had steadily eroded since he lost to Netanyahu in last year’s bruising general election. Perhaps unfairly, Herzog is seen as ineffectual and lacking in security credentials, an impression of fecklessness that his recent disastrous overtures towards Netanyahu did nothing to dispel. For Herzog’s part, a move into a senior government post, likely foreign minister, would have been one way for him to reassert himself on the national stage. For Netanyahu, bringing in Herzog’s Zionist Union (of which Labor is the major component) would have greatly increased the premier’s tenuous one-seat majority in parliament and, internationally, provided left-wing cover for his government.

If the genuineness of the talks is to be believed, the only question was what the price would have been. In a harried press conference after the Lieberman humiliation became public, Herzog laid out a litany of far-reaching concessions that he claimed the prime minister had met, but only as private “oral commitments.” Of these, the most consequential had to do with moderating the government’s far-right legislative agenda and decreasing the construction of settlements in the West Bank. Herzog also repeatedly alluded to an “historic opportunity” for his party to spearhead an amorphous regional peace initiative of unknown scope, increasing the public perception that Netanyahu had simply sold him a bill of goods in an attempt to decrease Lieberman’s negotiating position.

Despite the imminent accession of Lieberman into the government, including to the post of defense minister, Netanyahu maintains that the door is still open for the Zionist Union as well. Herzog, for his part, finally said no, stating that it was the premier who had “slammed the door” on such an option. In truth, Herzog’s recent indignities should have been foreseeable, based on not just the last Mofaz precedent, but all past cases of center-left politicians who have joined forces with Netanyahu.

In practice, the Netanyahu-Mofaz national unity government in 2012 quickly collapsed due to Netanyahu’s unwillingness to spurn the ultra-Orthodox parties and truly reform the rules of Israel’s mandatory military service (from which religious students are exempt). This had been Mofaz’s own condition for joining the government, one to which Netanyahu had, in fact, committed publicly. The public, however, took its ire out on Mofaz. The next general election, in 2013, saw Mofaz’s Kadima party lose 90 percent of its support, falling from 28 seats—then the Knesset’s largest party—to just two. By the following election in March 2015, polls put Kadima under the electoral threshold for entry into the Knesset. Mofaz, a respected former IDF chief of staff and defense minister, announced his retirement from politics; Kadima is now no more.

Herzog has become a laughingstock, both within his own party and publicly.
Before Mofaz, though, there was Ehud Barak. Barak, a former prime minister and Israel’s most decorated soldier, led the Labor party into the Netanyahu government after the 2009 elections, a move on which most of the party had soured by January 2011. To preempt an internal rebellion, Barak seceded from Labor, forming the breakaway Independence party in order to stay in the governing coalition. Much of the rest of the party left for the opposition. Barak remained Netanyahu’s loyal defense minister for another two years, a move that only eroded his public standing. Polls ahead of the 2013 election showed Independence unlikely to even pass the electoral threshold to gain a seat in the Knesset, and Barak took the hint and retired from politics (where he remains today). The Independence party passed from the scene, and it took Labor a few more years to regain its prior electoral strength. It’s telling that Herzog’s recent negotiations with Netanyahu drew the ire of many Labor parliamentarians, raising the specter once more of a split within the party.

More recently, Tzipi Livni and Yair Lapid were Netanyahu’s center-left allies in government, from 2013 until late 2014. Despite running an election campaign focused solely on the danger of Netanyahu remaining in power—replete with ads on buses showing mushroom clouds—Livni’s HaTnua party was the first to sign into Netanyahu’s new government after the 2013 election. Livni served as a justice minister, stopping untold numbers of right-wing legislative proposals, but her constituency abandoned her. Coming out of this Netanyahu government, HaTnua, which had six Knesset seats prior, was itself in danger of not passing the newly elevated electoral threshold in the 2015 elections.

For this reason, Livni entered into a partnership with Herzog’s Labor Party, running together as the Zionist Union in the most recent election. Indeed, Livni and Herzog ran initially on the promise of a rotating premiership (if and when they won); that pledge was abandoned frantically on the eve of the election due to polls that showed Livni dragging down the ticket.

For Netanyahu’s most senior coalition partner in 2013-2014, Lapid, the foray into government was likely useful in terms of experience—Lapid was a career journalist and political neophyte. But his Yesh Atid party was drastically reduced in the wake: from a stunning high of 19 seats in the 2013 election, Yesh Atid gained only 11 seats in last year’s poll. Since then, Lapid has consistently ruled out joining the current government, and the feeling on Netanyahu’s part is likely mutual. Yet it shouldn’t escape notice that Yesh Atid, precisely from opposition, has been rising in the polls and stealing voters from the Zionist Union (that is, from Herzog). Recent developments have likely only strengthened Lapid, who has projected an image of floating above the dirty political fray taking place below.

That Herzog thought joining forces with Netanyahu would play well among his voting base is remarkable in retrospect. Rumors of a national unity government between Netanyahu and Herzog began circulating over a year ago, mere days after the March 2015 election. Molad, an Israeli NGO, polled Zionist Union voters on just such a development, and the results were overwhelming. A full 71 percent of Herzog’s voters wanted him to remain in opposition (versus 25 percent who were in favor of joining the government). Yesh Atid voter preferences weren’t much different.

Israel's main opposition leader, Isaac Herzog, speaks during a news conference in Jerusalem, May 18, 2016.
Israel's main opposition leader, Isaac Herzog, speaks during a news conference in Jerusalem, May 18, 2016.
Ammar Awad / Reuters
Apparently center-left voters took the two leaders at their word. Netanyahu said outright that there was a deep “ideological chasm” between his Likud party and Herzog, and that the Zionist Union was an “extremist leftist list.” In some of his better political performances last year, Herzog did a formidable job of denouncing Netanyahu on a whole array of policy issues, from the economy to the peace process to the Iran nuclear deal. “My path is not your path. Our path is not your path,” Herzog thundered from the Knesset podium when the new Netanyahu government was sworn in. “This is a government without hope.”

In fairness, the history of Israeli politics is replete with examples of the bitterest adversaries becoming allies. The above account of Barak, Mofaz, Livni, and Lapid joining forces with Netanyahu only scratches the surface. In other words, there was precedent—and logic—to the persistent rumors of Herzog and Netanyahu negotiating the entry of the Zionist Union into the government. Herzog has continuously justified the attempt as statesmanlike, stemming from his concern over Israel’s grave internal divisions (the “hate on the streets,” as he put it) and the aforementioned regional peace “opportunity.” Left unsaid is that senior Labor officials, including Herzog, would become ministers, gain valuable government experience and national relevance, and leave behind the thankless opposition role of tilting at windmills. Netanyahu would have gotten his traditional left-wing fig leaf, which he dressed up as a sincere attempt at increasing governmental stability, national unity, and of course, peace.

All of this is now moot. Herzog has become a laughingstock, both within his own party and publicly. A looming internal leadership battle that was likely even prior to the collapse of the coalition talks has now taken on added significance, with Shelly Yachimovich, a former Labor chairwoman herself, recently comparing Herzog to a dog to whom Netanyahu had thrown a bone. In recent days Herzog himself has split his time between denouncing both Netanyahu and Yachimovich, even taking the unprecedented step of labeling his own Laborite critics part of the “extremist Left.”

The track record for Netanyahu’s previous center-left partners, although abysmal, still required certain concessions from the prime minister; however short-lived, coalitions were in fact formed. In this last instance, all it took was national unity talks to sow violent divisions inside the largest opposition party. Like the prospective groom of a thrice-married woman whose former husbands all died under strange circumstances, Herzog truly believed that a union with Netanyahu would be different this time. For such misplaced faith, Herzog will likely pay with his political career. The political widow-maker of the Israeli Left strikes again.

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  • NERI ZILBER is a journalist and researcher on Middle East politics and culture and an Adjunct Fellow of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
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