From 1974 to 1997, the Labor Party had only two leaders –Yitzhak Rabin and
Shimon Peres. For 15 years, from 1977 to 1992, Peres was the undisputed party
leader, although Rabin was always there, breathing down his neck. Peres also
returned for two later periods, from 1995-1997 and then again from 2003 to 2005
(when he was well into his 80s).
Amazingly, Peres never won a single
election outright for prime minister during this entire period but succeeded in
remaining party leader. Since the days of Peres, however, as soon as a party
leader fails to bring the party back to power, he/she invariably pays the price
by being ousted in favor of a new messiah.
This week, the party elected
yet another new leader, Isaac “Buji” Herzog, to replace Sheli Yehimovitz. She
lasted but two years in the position, thus equaling the record of Amir Peretz
but more than either Binyamin Ben-Eliezer (Fouad) or Amiram Mitzna, both of whom
survived a little over a year in what has proven to be a poisoned chalice, as
much due to the internal machinations of a party that often seems bent on
ultimate self-destruction than on its electoral popularity.
changed the party in ways that probably rebounded on her during last week’s
election. She attempted to shift the party from its image as the party of the
establishment (despite the fact that it has not been in power in its own right
since the 1990s) and bring in a new, young generation of socially active party
members and activists. But her potential success was usurped by Yair Lapid and
his Yesh Atid party, and her attempts to cash in on the social revolution of
recent years failed to pay any dividends, as the Labor Party took only third
place in the last elections. She also put all her eggs in the social and
economic basket, totally ignoring the critical issues of foreign affairs,
security and peace rather than strike a balance between the two. She left a
vacuum on matters related to the peace process and the future of the
Palestinians, allowing the present government to move the country ever farther
to the right without any serious opposition.
But it is possible that this
time, the party has elected a leader who will be staying around for a long
Herzog comes to the party leadership as a young and dynamic
53-year-old, bringing with him a wealth of experience as a lawyer in one of the
country’s top law firms, government secretary during Ehud Barak’s tenure as
prime minister, minister of housing, minister of tourism, minister of social
welfare, minister for responsibility for Diaspora affairs and fighting
anti-Semitism and long-serving MK in government and as a loyal member of the
opposition. By all accounts, he was one of the country’s most successful social
welfare ministers during a period of tenure when many of Israel’s critical
social and welfare problems came to the fore of public concern.
although he probably doesn’t like being reminded about it every day, Herzog
comes from a blue-blooded family of Israeli politicians and diplomats. His
grandfather, after whom he is named, was Israel’s first chief rabbi in a period
when the chief rabbi was an internationally and theologically respected figure,
unlike the current chief rabbinate, which is known more for its dirty election
campaign and financial frauds. Chief rabbi Herzog was as much an international
statesman on behalf of Israel as he was a religious leader, and he brought much
respect to the new country wherever he appeared.
His father, Haim
(Vivienne) Herzog, was the country’s much-respected sixth president and equally
famous for his denunciation of the Zionism is racism motion at the United
Nations during his tenure as Israel’s ambassador to the UN in the
His uncle, Abba Eban, was Israel’s Mr. Diplomat, serving as the
country’s first ambassador to both the US and the UN and later as the country’s
foreign minister, respected throughout the world for his diplomatic
Add to that his other uncle, Ya’acov Herzog, who was Israel’s
ambassador to Canada in the 1960s, advisor to Golda Meir on Jewish and Diaspora
affairs and an initial candidate for the post of British chief rabbinate in the
1960s, and you couldn’t have a much better family background for understanding
the wide range of social, political, foreign and religious issues a party
leader, and a potential future leader of the country, has to deal
But Buji Herzog is not a prince who has been handed his public
career on a silver platter. Far from it. He has worked his way up the political
system, proving at every juncture that he has the expertise and skills required
to navigate his way through the minefield of Israeli politics in general and the
far more complicated and suicidal minefield of Labor Party politics in
During the past year, he has worked his way, quietly and
efficiently, through the party apparatus, visiting party branches and activists
throughout the country, creating new bridges between the old party faithful who
had been turned away by Yehimovitz and the disenfranchised and disadvantaged
party members of the periphery and the development towns, to obtain his
resounding victory in last week’s primaries.
Unlike so many party leaders
of the past 15 years, Herzog has what it takes to make that final effort at
getting the Labor Party back on its feet and providing a true opposition to the
present government and an alternative government in the next
But it will not be easy for a party which, until the advent of
Yehimovitz, was seen as out of touch with the aspirations of a generation of
young Israelis, for whom the messages of the new millennium, rather than the
outdated messages of the 1950s and 1960s, are the guiding light for an Israel
looking to the future.
Herzog must create the bridge between the old and
the new, keeping both groups in the party and winning back the support of all
those who voted for a party with no clear values – Yesh Atid – if he is to
maintain a strong base of support. He must also create a message around which
the entire left wing, even parties such as Meretz, can unite around a common
denominator – as indeed the right wing have succeeded in doing, despite their
internal differences – if he is to have a solid base for challenging the present
government in the next elections.
Given the relative stability of the
Netanyahu administration, Herzog has three full years to build on this, and he
should not be deflected by the calls that will be coming his way this week –
from Yair Lapid, Tzipi Livni and perhaps even Binyamin Netanyahu – to join the
government in yet another government of national unity – another word for a
government of national paralysis. The one thing that can be said for the present
government is that it is a government with a clear ideology, an extremist right
wing one, that needs to be replaced rather than diluted, as has been the case
all too often in the artificiality of national unity governments.
will lose his long-term future if he succumbs to the short-term benefits of
joining, and being swallowed up by, the present administration.
the Labor Party has woken up to a renewed feeling of hope for the future. But,
like so many other times in the past 15 years, this new hope can quickly be
dissipated if the wrong short-term decisions are made.
Herzog is neither
a journalist (like Yehimovitch or Lapid) nor an army general (like Mitzna or
Ben-Eliezer), but he can draw on the expertise of each to assist him in his
task. Add to that his own legal and political experience and his intricate
knowledge of social and welfare problems, foreign affairs and the Diaspora
Jewish community, and he has what it takes to create a new holistic vision for
the party and the country.
For once, the Labor Party has made the right
The writer is dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social
Sciences at Ben-Gurion University. The views expressed are his alone.