Reality Check: The man for the job

If Labor is to return to a position of influence, it will need some ideological clarity and a new party leader – namely, Isaac Herzog.

May 1, 2011 23:09
4 minute read.
Isaac Herzog

Herzog 311. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])

The difference in reactions to the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation is stark and revealing: Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu immediately slipped into his favored scare-mongering mode, again insisting that this development proves there is no Palestinian partner for peace, and warning of Iran on our doorstep.

Labor leadership contender Isaac Herzog took another tack: He chose that very evening to launch a diplomatic initiative, proposing that Israel announce immediately that it supports the planned UN resolution in September to establish a Palestinian state.

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According to Herzog’s plan, Israel would recognize a Palestinian state whose borders would be decided in negotiations between the two sides; it would ratify the Clinton plan of a decade ago (in which the two-state solution would be based on the 1967 borders with agreed land swaps so as to enable the annexation of the large settlement blocs); and sacred places to Judaism would remain under Israeli sovereignty, while an agreed-upon international committee would manage the Temple Mount. Palestinian refugees would have the right to return to the Palestinian state only.

The rationale behind Herzog’s initiative is clear: Israel faces international isolation in September, and to prevent this, it should recognize a Palestinian state in advance, using this opportunity to jump-start the peace process.

Unfortunately Herzog is not prime minister, and instead we’re faced with the likelihood that Netanyahu will continue sticking his head in the sand as the world’s attitude toward Israel’s occupation of the West Bank hardens.

WHILE HERZOG is not prime minister, he does have a good chance of becoming Labor’s leader when the party holds its elections in the autumn. Out of all the candidates who have so far announced their intention of running, Herzog is by far the best.

The diplomatic plan he unveiled shows a pragmatic and realistic worldview: if Israel is to survive as a Jewish and democratic state, it has to throw off the burden of the occupation that threatens to turn it into a pariah country. Come September, if Israel continues to hold to the Netanyahu-Lieberman line that there is no Palestinian partner, Jerusalem will suffer a crushing diplomatic defeat in the United Nations General Assembly, which will no doubt be followed by some form of international sanctions and the threat of a third intifada.

Herzog’s rivals for the Labor leadership, Amir Peretz and Shelly Yacimovich, prefer to ignore the diplomatic challenges and have chosen instead to focus solely on social issues. This is a huge mistake. If Labor is ever to return to its position as a leading political party, it has to offer the electorate a broad range of policies covering all aspects of Israeli life, and not just run as a niche party.

Importantly, given his four years as an extremely effective and hardworking minister of welfare and social services, Herzog has considerable knowledge of the ills plaguing Israeli society, and has shown a deep commitment to closing the gaps between rich and poor, Jew and Arab. In particular, his work in ensuring that Holocaust survivors can live out the rest of their lives in dignity, and his establishment of a national program to aid youth at risk are worthy of praise. And unlike Peretz or Yacimovich, Herzog won’t frighten off middle-class voters, who remain an important part of Labor’s potential electorate.

Peretz, it should be remembered, has already had his turn at leading the party, and he was far from a stellar success. The same is true for Amram Mitzna, a former IDF general and mayor of Haifa (and, more recently, of Yeroham), who is also reportedly about to throw his hat in the ring. While Mitzna clearly worked wonders in Yeroham, rehabilitating a small town is not the same as leading a national party. Mitzna’s record as Labor leader at the beginning of this century was more than disappointing, as he showed himself unable both to connect with the electorate and to keep Labor MKs in line.

NO ONE is deluding themselves that Labor will win the next elections, or even become the second- or third-largest party in the Knesset. But this leadership election is important because if Labor is ever to rebuild and return to a position of influence, the next year or so – under a new party leader – is crucial.

Israel badly needs a strong, social democratic party that will close the ever-widening gaps between the haves and the have-nots, as well as counter the dangerous and increasing lurch to the far Right that is sweeping the country, particularly the youth. In the past two elections, Kadima benefited from Labor’s lack of ideological clarity. It is now time for Labor to start winning back these voters, and to do so it must first choose a leader to set the party’s direction.

Herzog is the person for the job.

The writer is a former editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post.

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