Israel’s parliamentary democracy is comprised of a majority coalition and its counterpart: an opposition that is dynamic and able to assume the reins of government in the span of time it takes to pass a motion of no-confidence. For the better part of a decade, many have argued that latter is lacking.
But the popular longtime legislator Isaac “Buji” Herzog recently took over leadership of the Labor party, making him head of the opposition and the man who would become prime minister if the coalition should fall.
Q: Would Labor joining the coalition be a realistic fall-back to toppling the government?
A: My aim is to lead a center, center-left bloc that will serve as an alternative for the people of Israel and will replace the right-wing bloc led by Binyamin Netanyahu. So my political objective is to change the course of this country to a different course while I believe that right now the country’s course is adverse to its main interests. However, I said constantly, that if Binyamin Netanyahu leaps ahead with a historic major decision towards peace with the Palestinians which will require painful concessions – concessions that we are not yearning for but we understand that we have to pay in order to reach peace – we will be there to help him. I’m not sure that it’s viable. All we know is that Secretary of State John Kerry is putting in an enormous effort in trying to break the stalemate in the peace process. He is working diligently; I commend him for it. And I hope that both leaders will look each other in the eye and move towards peace. And if they do, we will be there to help them.
Q: It’s often said that Israelis by-and-large support the security policies and foreign policy agenda of Prime Minister Netanyahu but reject his domestic and economic agenda. Accurate?
A: There is something in this. I understand that. Israelis have an innate fear and lack of trust in our neighbors and partners because Israel has constantly tried to reach peace. Israel, with all its faults, has taken bold steps to separate from the Palestinians – we pulled out of Lebanon; we pulled out of Gaza; we extended our hand for peace; we signed peace accords -- and yet, there’s never a dull moment. There are always risks here. Yesterday, for example, an Israeli citizen – a Bedouin-Muslim citizen – was shot and killed by a violent act of aggression from Gaza. A few days ago, innocent Israelis in a bus in Bat Yam were almost butchered by a bomb planted on the bus. What does it mean for the average Israeli? He says, “You, Mr. Abbas, the leader of the Palestinians, are demanding release of prisoners with blood on their hands and on the other hand, we still suffer from terror. There is a lack of trust. I, for one, believe that nonetheless we have to be bold and make a major effort for peace. I think it is vital for the well-being of the Jewish state; it is vital for the state of Israel. I come from that angle in demanding advancement of the peace process despite the radical forces that want right now to undermine this ability by terror activities.
Q: In the US there’s a maxim that suggests politics is local; driven by concerns of health and wealth. How can you convince voters that you’ll improve the nation’s quality of life without sacrificing their safety?
A: Well, that’s a very good question and that’s a question for social democratic and liberal forces all over the world because people are looking for – as you said so beautifully -- for their own wellbeing and safety. It’s a combination: personal safety and personal wellbeing. I believe in supporting Israel’s security as a prime issue, as a prime interest. Israel’s security – as it’s always been – will be a central part of Labor’s agenda. I believe that advocating and fighting for security will protect our children. And therefore, the demand that the security issues be resolved first with the Palestinians makes sense. However, parallel to that we have to make efforts to the hearts of the Palestinians. Most of the rank-and-file of the Palestinian people as well as most of the rank-and-file of the Israeli people are eager for peace; are fatigued from the confrontation; are willing to accept a compromise – and that’s why we have to do both. On the social-democratic agenda, on the inner issues, we believe in a larger involvement of government in developing services. We believe in a government assuming responsibility of education, on health and welfare. We believe in the natural safety net of society by social security and other services. And we believe, if needed, in raising taxes in certain quarters of society to create a fairer and more balanced society.
Q: Two summers ago tens of thousands of Israelis took to the streets to protest socio-economic issues. Conditions didn’t really improve, yet the protesters were barely seen one year later. What happened?
A: First of all, I think that’s it’s there, that it’s disseminated all over. It’s written on the walls of the political system. Social protest is around. We, in our party, have two of the most prominent leaders of the protest. And the protest is looming over the whole political system. Look, 100-years ago, the Bolshevik Revolution took place. 100-years later, a different type of revolution took place. The Bolshevik Revolution demanded a fairer distribution of wealth in society. However, it was done in a violent, aggressive and inhumane way in certain areas. We are here talking 100-years later of a democratic protest which brought together in one city square, in one night, 5 per cent of the population of the nation with no violence: simply demanding social justice – an amorphic term which everyone found his affiliation with. And I think that’s a huge, huge watershed in Israeli history and I intend to crystallize it into a political message.
Q: OECD – Some call the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development Israel’s Chinese curse: it got the membership it wished for. But now Israelis have more than 20 nations of like economies against which to compare quality of life and they see that it costs Israelis more than it costs others to live. What’s wrong with this picture?
A: First of all, I think you’re accurately depicting the conclusions of the OECD. I served as Israel’s Minister of Welfare and Social Services for four years. I revolutionized a lot of the social services but I kept on demanding that Israel address, first and foremost, one of its most strategic threats, which is the poverty in Israel. 20% of Israel’s citizens live below the poverty line which in proportion means less than $500 (US) per month per person. That’s unacceptable. And recent reports have shown an even worsening of the situation and that comes from a certain political, economic concept which believes solely in free market economy. I believe that the world is tilting back; that the pendulum is tilting back toward a more adjusted structure of society with government involvement in order to balance the share of wealth in society.
Q: Under Buji Herzog, is the socio-economic agenda as significant as the defense and security policy?
A: They are parallel; one cannot be without the other. But I believe there is a direct linkage: the more we promote peace; the more we settle our differences with our neighbors – our most difficult conflicts – the better the structure of society and the wellbeing of its citizens will be. We will have more money for education; more money for health; and more money for welfare and other services because right now we are solely committed to these conflicts. And I believe that the world around us, the Middle East, is actually ripe for reconciliation; despite the fact that the Arab Spring calls for many question marks. Also, many many individuals around the region are now seeing what the outcome of dictatorship is; what the outcome of atrocity is; and what the outcome of a beautiful democracy that we have here in our land, in the state of Israel, is. I think it’s our duty for this generation to reach an agreement.
Q: Does Iran pose an existential threat to Israel?
A: The development of the Iranian nuclear program to a nuclear bomb is clearly a threat of an existential magnitude. It’s not that Israel doesn’t know how to deal with it; but Israel is right in demanding staunch and uncompromising demands from the international community towards Iran and I sincerely hope that the negotiations of the P5+1 and Iran will lead to the agreement that President Obama has declared so that we see a change in the course of that program.
Q: What should Israel be doing vis-à-vis Sudan?
A: I would like, through you, to ring the bell to the whole world, and set an awakening call to the international community to help and save the people of South Sudan where at this very moment terrible atrocities are taking place. I’ve seen some pictures; they are horrendous. And I say it from Israel where people have suffered atrocities and know what it means. It’s the most newly-born nation in the family of nations. It has resources and wealth. It needs only to stabilize its situation. I believe that the intervention from America and the world community needs to be fast and be quick in order to prevent deterioration of the situation in South Sudan.
Q: A not-insignificant number of Israelis appear to believe that maintaining the sanctity of the US-Israel relationship is an issue greater than Iran’s nukes. Prime Minister Netanyahu appears to field more criticism over his turbulent relationship with President Obama than almost anything else. Are you concerned by the Jerusalem-Washington friction?
A: Yes, absolutely. I have said it outright. I believe that the connections and the strategic relationship between Israel and the United States is part of our strength. We share common values and I believe that such arguments should not be done publicly. There’s no need to embarrass each other; no need to confront each other publicly; make a political campaign on each other. And I believe that such relationships are so important: they must be intimate; they must be 24/7; they must be strategic. We see so many things eye-to-eye. We have so much respect for the United States and its role in the region and being with Israel; and the same for the American administration towards Israel, we can have our arguments and debates but it should not be made public so that people will try to break into the fact that there’s no light of day between the two nations.
Q: Secretary of State Kerry’s peace process is reaching a critical stage: his proposals will be revealed, possibly next week. The Palestinian demands are well-known as is your belief that a majority of Israelis support a peace plan. Is there anything we expect to be demanded of Israel that President Abbas should know is not acceptable to Labor and the Opposition as well as the coalition?
A: Of course, we made it clear. Our position is well-known. We are a centrist party; we believe in peace. The late Yitzhak Rabin led us to peace and we’ve tried time and again. Clearly, the Palestinian right of return to Israel is out of the question. Our position is based on the Clinton parameters of 2000. I think that’s the way we should move ahead.
Q: You’re the son of a President, but the grandson of a Chief Rabbi. Do you agree with the prime minister’s demand that Palestinians acknowledge the Jewish nature of the state of Israel?
A: I think that the concept was at the root of the 1947 UN Resolution creating a homeland for the Jewish people and a homeland for the Palestinians: what’s called the “Partition Plan” has it embedded there. Therefore, it is legitimate to have in the final agreement to have a clear depiction of the characteristics of both states. I don’t argue with that and would actually say it makes a certain sense. However, I wouldn’t make it an issue of friction originally. It’s not my intention to embarrass the other side and make it a cause of friction. I do believe that when it comes to an agreement, there is a sense to having it included.
Q: You recently met with President Abbas…What optimism did you come away with?
A: First of all, I believe that President Abbas is a serious partner for peace with Israel. And I think both that the people of Israel should get to know him if he comes to speak at the Knesset [parliament]; and I believe that the people of Palestine should get to know Prime Minister Netanyahu if he comes to the Palestinian parliament. I believe both leaders have a golden opportunity now to reach an agreement. And I believe that if they can’t do it, history will judge them negatively. I said to President Abbas, “Many people are looking up to you. You should be forthcoming, innovative and bold.” The same thing I say to Prime Minister Netanyahu. And I believe the ball is now in their court and both of them need to deal with it and get us to the moment of truth of peace.
Q: We’re hearing debates about whether the Third Intifada is upon us. How should the increase in violence be addressed?
A: First of all and foremost, Israeli security establishment, the army and the secret service are getting full support from us in fighting and combating terror. There is no compromise with terror. None whatsoever. There is no legitimization of terror; no acceptance of terror. None of it is acceptable in any way. And I think the military action last night in Gaza was a good message in this respect. We support it wholeheartedly. We have to understand that there are radical forces that are now raising their ugly heads to undermine the process of a two-state solution. This is their aim. They want to get to a one-state solution where both people are choking the neck of the other. Therefore, we have to be bold, lucid and move forward despite the fact that people will try undermine it. We need to be alert for any possible terrorist attack. Clearly, recent developments are bothering and worrying us and we need to both be alert and move forward toward peace.