Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog would have made an effort to build in Jewish communities that are part of West Bank settlement blocs had his negotiations with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on joining the government ended differently, he told The Jerusalem Post in an interview on Thursday.Herzog, who will be one of the featured speakers at The Jerusalem Post Conference in New York on May 7, held two rounds of negotiations with Netanyahu about joining his government in February and September 2016 that were spurred by progress toward a regional approach to solving the Middle East conflict.Netanyahu’s potential agreement with Herzog gave the Zionist Union leader the power to veto construction over the pre-1967 lines. While the prime minister’s Likud allies feared he would use that power to prevent construction in Judea and Samaria, Herzog revealed that he intended to do the opposite.
“I would have obtained international support for construction within the blocs,” Herzog said. “It would have been a victory for Zionism, but Netanyahu failed to seize the opportunity. Settler movement leaders said that under me there would have been more security, and they would have enjoyed more support.”Herzog said he believes in the importance of the blocs and in giving them the ability to develop. But he said he would have insisted on a settlement freeze beyond the blocs and on allowing Palestinian construction adjacent to their cities for housing and economic growth.The first round of talks with Herzog ended when Netanyahu chose to add Yisrael Beytenu chairman Avigdor Liberman to his government instead. Since then, Liberman has angered settler leaders by speaking out forcefully against applying Israeli sovereignty to parts of Judea and Samaria and legalizing outposts.“Netanyahu will be judged by history as missing opportunities to improve Israel’s place in the region,” Herzog said. “There could have been a historic moment.” But Herzog said he is no longer interested in joining Netanyahu’s government, due to the disproportionate influence on its policies by Bayit Yehudi leader Naftali Bennett. He instead hopes to be reelected as Labor leader in the July 3 primary and then build the Zionist Union into a bloc of parties that could beat the Likud.“A new political bloc must lead the nation in a careful and cautious manner with more mainstream policies,” he said.Herzog said he does not expect Yesh Atid to join such a bloc, because it is moving to the Right and refusing to cooperate with the Zionist Union in the opposition. He said no one truly knows Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid’s views on key issues and he expects voters to return to the Zionist Union as the next election approaches.As Labor leader, Herzog has taken steps to improve the party’s financial situation, build its branches and restore its membership to 60,000. He said the candidates expected to run against him “show people see Labor as a real alternative to leadership.”“I intend to win and break the trend that there has been of Labor leaders not winning a second term,” he said.Meanwhile, in his role as opposition leader, Herzog was invited to Moscow this week by the Russian government and the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee of the Duma. Ahead of Netanyahu’s visit on Thursday, Herzog met with top government and elected officials and Jewish community leaders and toured a Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center exhibit of writings of former Lubavitcher chief rabbis that had been hidden by the Soviets.Herzog focused on challenges in the region during his talks with the Russians, stressing that on that issue he agrees with Netanyahu.“They see Iran and Hezbollah with different eyes,” he said. “I explained that Iran is working endlessly to radicalize the region and undermine moderate regimes. I don’t think they fully internalize the dangers emanating from Iran regionally.” Herzog said he is fascinated by how differently US President Donald Trump is perceived in Moscow than as expected by the Western media.“The perception is that the Russians are celebrating Trump’s victory, but the Russians question how their relationship with the US will develop and have no clarity on what the policies of Trump will be. This contradictory perception is fascinating,” he remarked.Herzog also said the Russians expressed interest in recent antisemitic incidents in the US. He caused a stir when he said Israel should prepare for possible waves of American immigration due to the incidents.“I have deep feelings for the American Jewish community,” he said. “The concentration of so many antisemitic events in the US is a very disturbing phenomenon.They have been unleashed not by Islam but by people who are antisemitic.Sure, Jews are flourishing in the US, but we saw in France and elsewhere that when there was a wave of antisemitism, people decided to seek a new life in the Jewish state.”Herzog stressed that he was not being judgmental of Jews in the US or their government, and that the American Jewish groups he has met with recently have not told him they were offended.He told the Union for Reform Jewry that Netanyahu is making a huge mistake by not making progress on an agreement for pluralist prayer at the Western Wall.He revealed that he spoke to Regional Cooperation Minister Tzachi Hanegbi, whom Netanyahu appointed to deal with the matter, and advised him to handle it quietly in order to build trust.“These fights split the Jewish community and don’t aid prayer at the Kotel,” said Herzog, who initiated the Robinson’s Arch area as a solution in 1999, when he was cabinet secretary. “I only regret that extremists on all sides exacerbate tensions.”Herzog expressed pride in Team Israel’s advancement in the World Baseball Classic. He admitted that he played baseball in high school at the Ramaz School in Manhattan, but was hardly a stellar athlete.“I never imagined Israel would be good at baseball,” he said. “It’s like the messiah has come. I wasn’t good at all at baseball, not a good batter or pitcher, but I like the game.”
Border Police evacuating protesters in Ofra settlement on Feb. 28, 2017 (credit: Police Spokesman"s Unit)