Isaac Herzog, the new leader of Israel’s parliamentary opposition, said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may not have what it takes to buck political pressure and sign a peace agreement with the Palestinians.
“I’m not sure he has the guts,” Herzog said in an interview yesterday at his Knesset office. “I say to Netanyahu -- if you fail, I will replace you and we will do it.”
The Labor party leader who is the son of former Israeli President Chaim Herzog also criticized Netanyahu for what he described as a weak response to Israel’s 22 percent poverty rate, the highest in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. He said he would raise taxes on the rich to narrow the widening income gap and divert government funds from West Bank settlements to develop less populated areas in Israel’s north and south.
Herzog’s criticism of the Israeli leader comes amid a push by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to get Netanyahu and his Palestinian counterpart Mahmoud Abbas to agree to guidelines for peace talks. The Labor leader has restored his party’s traditional focus on the peace process after a surprise victory in November primaries.
Kerry is making a “herculean effort” to renew the negotiations, Herzog said, while at the same time giving him a 50-50 chance of success.
“My dilemma is whether Netanyahu is willing to take a bold step that may have political ramifications,” said Herzog, noting disparaging remarks about Kerry made by Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, who is a member of the prime minister’s Likud party.
Netanyahu told reporters in Jerusalem today that he plans to meet Kerry within “a few days” and work with him to reach a peace deal.
Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, head of The Jewish Home party that has 12 seats in Netanyahu’s 68-member coalition, said on Jan. 19 that the establishment of a Palestinian state would threaten Israel’s economy.
Bennett’s assessment is “totally divorced from reality,” Herzog said today at a news conference with foreign journalists in Jerusalem. The economy minister “undermines Netanyahu’s chance to make peace” and preaches a “simplistic message,” he said.
Herzog, 53, said he was optimistic he could mobilize a parliamentary majority to offer Netanyahu support for a peace treaty with Abbas.
“Time is running out and we are nearing the moment of truth,” said Herzog. “The problem is whether the current leadership can take this challenge and deal with it.”
Netanyahu last week made an unannounced trip to Jordan to meet King Abdullah and coordinate peace efforts. Abdullah, who heads the second Arab country after Egypt to sign a peace treaty with Israel, has met Netanyahu several times in the absence of direct contacts between the Israeli leader and Abbas.
Jonathan Spyer, a lecturer at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, Israel, said it was unlikely that Netanyahu would have to choose between his coalition and a peace agreement.
That’s because “the Palestinians would have to get somewhere close to the Netanyahu position,” Spyer said in an interview. “I don’t think we are anywhere close to that.”
Israeli and Palestinian teams have been negotiating since July under a U.S.-brokered initiative to reach a peace agreement by the end of April. In Ramallah last week, veteran Palestinian negotiator Nabil Shaath said that an agreement will be impossible unless Netanyahu drops his demand that Palestinians recognize the country as a Jewish state.