Swerving rightward out of control?

In what direction will Herzog and other politicians like Netanyahu, Bennett and Liberman be leaning at their Seders tonight?

April 23, 2016 12:56
LABOR LEADER Isaac Herzog is flanked by his wife, Michal, and President Reuven Rivlin

LABOR LEADER Isaac Herzog is flanked by his wife, Michal, and President Reuven Rivlin. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

Jews around the world will dine at their Passover Seders Friday night, and most will follow the custom of eating matza and drinking wine while leaning to the left.

But what about Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Bayit Yehudi chairman Naftali Bennett and Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman? Will they lean rightward in defiance? Leaning is said to symbolize freedom and royalty.

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Seder-goers recline leftward, because doctors say leaning on the right is a choking hazard. It can prevent the epiglottis from covering the trachea, allowing food to enter and stop the flow of oxygen.

But politicians do not receive advice from the Passover Haggada or from doctors. Their political oxygen comes from the support of the people, so they let polls be their guide.

Last Friday, a Gal Hadash poll on the cover of Israel Hayom asked 500 Jewish 11th- and 12th-graders representing a statistical sample of that age group to define themselves politically. It found that 59 percent consider themselves right-wing, 23% centrist, and only 13% left-wing, while 5% said they had no opinion.

With such numbers, it is understandable that Netanyahu sparred this week, first with Liberman and then with Bennett, over the leadership of the Right. Those fights will only intensify the closer it gets to the next election, even if it will not take place “next year in Jerusalem,” which are the concluding words of the Seder.

The leaders of the Right will have to be careful between now and then to not be seen as moving so far rightward that they fall off their chairs. A rally held Tuesday in support of a soldier who killed a neutralized Palestinian terrorist in Hebron was seen as going too far, and mainstream politicians not named Oren Hazan made a point of staying away.

That experience of leaning rightward is not new to Netanyahu, Liberman or Bennett, so they know how to handle it. But it is new to Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog, so he is liable to make some mistakes.

Herzog has been trying to shift his party away from the diminishing Left. He gave it the patriotic name Zionist Union, shunning the leftist image of Labor.

He stopped holding faction meetings in the Knesset room that has the picture of peace-process leading former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin in the background. He declared the two-state solution not currently relevant.

Without such moves, chances are Herzog’s party would be doing even worse in the polls.

But Tuesday night, he appeared to go too far when he told an audience of activists in Ashkelon that his party’s MKs need to correct an impression that they are always “Arab lovers.”

His explanation that the context was Yesh Atid stealing votes by calling itself centrist did not help.

His clarification later that by Arab lovers he meant those who put the interests of the Palestinians before those of Israel failed to prevent the outcry.

Herzog’s statement received immediate condemnation from his Zionist Union rivals Shelly Yacimovich and Erel Margalit. Even Bennett attacked him from the Left, which would be a delicious irony were it not tainted by Bennett and Margalit sharing the same political strategist.

To add insult to injury, or actually the other way around, while the attacks on Herzog were intensifying, the car he was driving in on the way from Tel Aviv to Haifa collided with others in a pileup on the Coastal Road. Herzog was not the driver, but his critics in the party joked that the accident happened because he had swerved rightward out of control.

Herzog should send flowers to Netanyahu for his Seder to thank him for threatening to fire Bennett at Wednesday’s security cabinet, pushing reports about Herzog’s bad day to the end of the nightly news broadcasts.

That was a merciful end to an awful week for Herzog that began with questioning under caution at the National Fraud Squad Lahav 433 headquarters in Lod for alleged illegal fund-raising for his 2013 election for Labor leader against then-incumbent Yacimovich. The questioning formally shifted the initial probe into a full-fledged criminal investigation.

By all accounts, that questioning went better for Herzog than he had expected. While it did last for more than five hours, it could have taken much longer. The sandwiches with which he impressed police by bringing them from home were not needed.

Herzog came well prepared by his lawyers, who also represented him in a similar campaign fund-raising scandal involving former prime minister Ehud Barak’s successful campaign for prime minister in 1999.

It seems hard to remember now, but despite his remaining silent in that investigation, when Herzog campaigned for Labor leader in 2013, his reputation was as squeaky clean as a car on Passover. He was perceived as being too nerdy to win an election, especially in Labor, where politics have tended to be dirty.

When Herzog announced his candidacy at an August 26, 2013, Tel Aviv press conference, The Jerusalem Post asked him whether he had the “elbows” necessary to succeed in a Labor race. His victory and the current criminal investigation answered the question in hindsight.

Herzog responded that throughout Israel’s political history, those like himself who knew how to cooperate with other politicians had proven that they could accomplish more than tricksters and back-stabbers.

Referring to Margalit and MK Eitan Cabel, who supported him despite their own political ambitions, Herzog added that his success in bringing together such egos proved that he had elbows.

But three years later, Margalit is running against Herzog. This week, he released a video in which he made news by repeatedly using swear words to criticize the Likud.

But what was more significant in that video was the four-letter F-word he used over and over again about Herzog.

The word was “fail.” While Margalit has not formally announced his candidacy, it is clear that he will not be supporting Herzog again.

Cabel told a rally of his supporters in Netanya, that he, too, is interested in running in the next Labor leadership race. But unlike Margalit, he made clear that, as a friend of Herzog, he would not run if he does.

SIMILAR TO his answer in that press conference three years ago, following his questioning by police Sunday, Herzog told the Post that he still maintains the backing of his political allies. He predicted that criticism of him by Yacimovich would boomerang against her and help him.

“I have gotten a lot of support from my faction and rank and file in an impressive way,” he said.

“People don’t like this conniving stuff, this looking for blood.”

Herzog did not like a follow-up question he was asked about a report in last Friday’s Makor Rishon newspaper that senior MKs in his party believe that the only way it can win the next election is if it is led by former IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz.

“Come on, gimme a break, do you see him coming? Where is he?” he asked about the general who is in the midst of a legally required cooling- off period before he is allowed to enter politics.

Gantz is not entirely under the radar. In an April 12 speech for the Institute for National Security Studies, he delivered a relatively dovish speech.

“We need to do everything we can to reach some kind of agreement [with the Palestinians], with strong security arrangements,” he said.

Gantz’s speech mattered not only because more and more people are saying that, for technical reasons, the cooling-off period law does not apply to him. Former interior minister Ophir Paz-Pines told Army Radio Thursday he believes the Supreme Court would allow Gantz to enter politics.

What Gantz said also mattered because it showed that a potential candidate can talk about the Palestinians as a partner rather than an enemy and emerge unscathed. Following his address, Zionist Union MKs spoke more openly about the possibility of him becoming their leader.

“I want to win the next election and replace the Likud government, and I will support whoever could best do that,” said Zionist Union MK Nachman Shai.

Those attending Herzog’s Seder might need to look closely and see in which direction he leans. But Gantz will be reclining comfortably to the Left.

However, Gantz is not a politician yet, so he knows he is not being scrutinized. At his Seder, he can still celebrate his freedom.

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