Center Field: How Buji can beat Bibi

This year, Herzog’s greatest positive may be a negative.

By GIL STERN STERN TROY
December 9, 2014 21:15
Labor Party chairman Isaac Herzog

Labor Party chairman Isaac Herzog. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

Like senior years in high school, election campaigns normally trigger mixed feelings of dread and excitement. Fear of the unknown and abject failure compete with dreams of glory. Two days into Israel’s unsought, unnecessary, undesirable campaign, few Israelis’ feelings are mixed. It’s just dread. Few want Netanyahu back; most fear he will return. Nevertheless, those hoping for “Anybody But Bibi” can take heart: the latest polls estimate a Isaac Herzog-Tzipi Livni ticket could get 23 mandates to 21 mandates for the Benjamin Netanyahu- led Likud. Here’s how Herzog could replace Netanyahu.

Experienced and savvy, Herzog has a background in military intelligence and years in Cabinet positions, especially a successful stint as Welfare and Social Services Minister. His father Chaim Herzog’s legacy in fighting the Zionism-is-racism resolution should earn respect from the Right; his grandfather and namesake’s rabbinic background should merit respect from the religious. Clearly, if he were elected, his fresh approach and idealism would reassure Israel’s increasingly dejected friends worldwide.

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This year, Herzog’s greatest positive may be a negative.

Having been in the opposition, he’s unsullied by this government’s failures. Serving in this past government was as toxic as the Arava oil spill; if the muck didn’t get you the fumes could. Netanyahu, despite last week’s cry-baby press conference blaming centrist ministers for not cooperating, and reproaching voters for lacking the wisdom to give him more mandates, is the prime minister. He should be the number one guy taking responsibility, not passing the buck. Instead, he has become a walking advertisement for the wisdom of term limits.

This election is Herzog’s big chance. To win, he must run a vigorous, visionary campaign, emerging as a muscular moderate, ready to lead. The carping about him being too soft, too un-charismatic and too much the lovely liberal actually offer a great opportunity. No one expects to learn anything new about Netanyahu, who first became prime minister in June 1996. Herzog’s public image is sufficiently unformed – with just enough negatives – to be primed for a makeover that enlivens this campaign and inspires voters.

Substantively, Herzog must give the speech of his life, solving the biggest problem that has vexed Israel’s peace camp since Hamas started deploying suicide bombers two decades ago. Herzog must explain how Israel pursues peace wisely, safely and constructively, in a post-Oslo world.

Herzog acted responsibly and patriotically this summer by supporting the government amid Hamas’s rocket barrage. He recognizes too many Palestinians’ lethal fantasies backed by the toxic delegitimization campaign being waged against Israel worldwide. He appreciates the dangers facing Israel daily; he knows we would have peace if we lived in a world with a peace-seeking, non-terrorist, democratic Palestinian nationalist movement. So how to progress? In a serious address, Herzog should take US President Barack Obama’s famous framing. Acknowledge that peace is just, that peace is necessary, but explain, in ways that no peace-processor, leftist, or Obama administration representative has, how peace can possibly be possible in a volatile, hate-filled, missile-laden, anti-Zionist, anti-Semitic region, with our lovely Palestinian neighbors led by an ailing Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and an evil Hamas.

Only a realistic, hard-headed, demanding peacemaker has a shot at leading a traumatized, justifiably wary, post-Oslo, post-Gaza withdrawal, post-Southern Lebanon pullout, pre-third-intifada Israel. He must explain: how do we stop this new wave of terror and others in the future? How do we ensure another territorial withdrawal doesn’t produce more violence against Israelis? And how do Palestinians fulfill their national dreams without making every Israeli jet taking off and landing at Ben-Gurion Airport a possible target of some terrorist with an RPG on his – or her – shoulder? Tactically, Herzog must mobilize his base while wooing Russians, the religious, Sephardim, proving he is ready to lead and will forge a viable coalition when given the chance. He should not preclude allying with Likud if necessary – Netanyahu could be defense minister, putting his skills on the Iran file to good use. Herzog is wisely courting Amir Peretz, highlighting their shared passion for social justice while helping the party – and many Israelis – apologize for not appreciating Peretz’s foresight in greenlighting the Iron Dome.

Stylistically, Herzog must be tough when squabbling with Likud and his opponents, turning every confrontation, and every Netanyahu bumble, into opportunities to show off his smarts, his strengths, and his resilience. Herzog needs an arsenal of one-liners, elegant comebacks hitting fast and furious, supplemented by a storehouse of ideas, using every controversy to knock his rivals while proactively advertising solutions to every problem.

Herzog should study how Menachem Begin, who could easily have been even more distant, elitist and aristocratic connected with so many voters who were so unlike him. He should study how Bill Clinton in 1992 mastered the right combination of parries against opponents and ideological, programmatic, inspirational thrusts of his own. And, he should study Naftali Bennett’s big surge in the last election, which was powered by appealing commercials celebrating traditional values (until Lapid wooed those voters).

In that spirit, Herzog should run proudly, unashamedly and flamboyantly as the leader of the Labor Party in its latest incarnation. His campaign commercials should celebrate his Labor predecessors as Israel’s founding heroes, as courageous leaders who knew how to make war and how to make peace, as visionary state-builders who knew how to grow an economy yet protect the less fortunate, and as great Zionists who envisioned Israel as a thriving Jewish and democratic state.

Herzog’s commercials, his speeches, his campaign must deliver what any potential prime minster should provide, especially now: a restored sentimental sense of pride in the past, renewed tough-minded insights into how to solve the most pressing problems in the present, and revived passionate faith in a safe, peaceful, prosperous, principled Jewish-democratic future.

The author is professor of history at McGill University and a Visiting Professor at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya. His latest book, Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight Against Zionism as Racism, just received the 2014 J.I. Segal Non-fiction Award on a Jewish Theme.

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