Politics & Government

Leading election opponent to Netanyahu vows to reopen talks with Palestinians

Isaac Herzog, the leader of Israel’s Labor party and the main opponent of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in next month’s elections, said Tuesday that if elected he would work to revive peace talks with the Palestinians and curb settlement building in the West Bank.

Calling Netanyahu’s speech next week to the U.S. Congress “a mistake,” he asserted that there should be “no daylight” between Israel and the Obama administration on an emerging deal to curb Iran’s nuclear program.

Herzog, 54, heads the Zionist Union alliance with Tzipi Livni, a former justice minister who leads a small centrist party. Polls have shown their joint slate is in a neck-and-neck race with Netanyahu’s Likud party.

Casting himself as the only candidate capable of unseating Netanyahu at the polls, Herzog sidestepped the question of whether he might join him in a national unity government should either leader be unable to form a majority coalition.

“I intend to win and become the next prime minister of Israel,” Herzog told foreign reporters. “I have no other option.” In any case, he added, “We will not go with (Netanyahu’s) political vision at all.”

Describing his party as centrist, Herzog said he was working to attract Likud voters disappointed with Netanyahu’s leadership. He offered a cautious blueprint for peace efforts with the Palestinians, seeking to deflect Netanyhau’s accusations that Herzog would compromise Israel’s security.

Herzog said that if elected he would “try to reignite the process with the Palestinians,” adding that it would be a “bilateral process based on a regional platform with our neighbors Egypt and Jordan.”

He said that as part of confidence-building measures he was prepared to curb Israeli settlement building in the West Bank, freezing construction in enclaves outside big settlement blocs. Those blocs, he said, were “vital for Israel’s security” and would come under Israeli sovereignty in any future deal as part of land swaps with the Palestinians.

But Herzog cautioned that he didn’t know “in what mood we will find the Palestinians,” and whether they would choose to persist in using international forums for such steps as pressing possible war crimes cases against Israel in the International Criminal Court.

“We will do our best to stop the onslaught on Israel and protect our sons and daughters against prosecution of any kind,” he said.

On Iran, Herzog said he would take a different tack from Netanyahu to press Israel’s case.

Netanyahu, who has vehemently opposed the deal being negotiated with Iran, angered Obama administration officials when he accepted an invitation from House Speaker John Boehner to address Congress next week without prior coordination with the White House.

“No Israeli leader will ever accept a nuclear Iran,” Herzog said. “However, the way to deal with it – that’s where I beg to differ with Prime Minister Netanyahu. I believe in open and frank discussion with the U.S. administration. I believe in open and frank discussions with the P5-plus-1 leadership. And I think Netanyahu’s speech in Washington is a mistake.”

He added: “The most important issue is to make sure that there is no daylight between us and the United States” on the details of the deal under discussion between between Iran and Western powers. P5-plus-1 is how diplomats refer to the partners pursuing a deal with Iran – the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council (China, France, Great Britain, Russia and the United States) plus Germany.

There was further sparring on Tuesday between Netanyahu and the Obama administration on the proposed agreement.

Netanyahu repeated his charge that the deal “will allow Iran to become a nuclear threshold state,” adding that “with the powers’ consent, Iran will get a license to develop bombs.”

Kerry responded at a congressional hearing. “Anybody running around right now jumping in to say, ‘Well, we don’t like the deal,’ or this or that, doesn’t know what the deal is.” Kerry said. “There is no deal yet, and I caution people to wait and see what these negotiations produce.”