Having demonstrated impressive political skills in eliminating Shelly Yacimovich as Labor Party leader, Isaac Herzog must figure out what’s left of the Israeli left – and revive it too. Eventually, he will have to rebuild the limping Labor Party which runs through leaders as quickly as Hasidim devour their Rebbe’s Challah and is hemorrhaging members even faster than America’s Conservative synagogues. But an ideological makeover must precede any political resurgence. Most Israelis are justifiably fed up with the old, tired, leftist grousing, too entrenched in nineteenth-century’s illusions and too ignorant of the twentieth century’s reality checks.
Yacimovich’s negativity was too grating. Not being Bibi is not enough. “Bougie” must lead his party with a new, inspiring, appealing vision.
Israeli liberals need liberating. They have been held hostage by the Ha’aretz-istas perpetual descent from necessary self-criticism into pathological self-loathing, the refusal of Shimon Peres and his fans to acknowledge Oslo’s failure, and Social Democrats’ inability worldwide to realize that Marx is dead, Communism imploded, capitalism defeated socialism, yet democracy still needs free enterprise with a heart and soul. Herzog must push the Left from the self-defeating lament “what did we do wrong” to the empowering challenge “how do we do things right?”
Herzog can see how Tony Blair’s and Bill Clinton’s Third Way sought a constructive, patriotic, consensus-building Left in the 1990s. But Blair lost credibility by supporting the Iraq War and Clinton lost credibility by lying about Lewinsky. Herzog should then pioneer his own Zionist Golden Mean with a Jewish touch, in the pragmatic but principled tradition of Labor’s David Ben-Gurion.
To restore the Left’s credibility, Herzog must first explain why the Oslo Peace Process produced lethal terrorism not peace. He can then apply lessons learned to avoid a repeat. Using Barack Obama’s framing, the Left usually argues that Peace is Just and Peace is Necessary without explaining how Peace is Possible with this Palestinian leadership, after the Gaza withdrawal debacle, after the Hamas coup, after Mahmoud Abbas’s mandate ended, after Ehud Olmert’s generous offer went unanswered, and despite ongoing Palestinian delegitimization of Israel. Just as Bibi Netanyahu’s Bar Ilan University address accepted a two-state solution, Bougie Herzog should address the realities of Palestinian intransigence, chaos and rejectionism. If he can nevertheless justify continuing the peace process, he will change his image – and that of his allies – from naïve idealists to muscular moderates.
Similarly, Herzog should tap the expertise of his ally, Labor MK Erel Margalit, a successful entrepreneur who remains a Social Democrat, to transform the social justice argument from 2011’s earnest social protests into hard-headed but soft-hearted programs that work for 2013. All sophisticated capitalist economies suffer from growing gaps between rich and poor, as technology makes unskilled jobs less remunerative, and more replaceable. Having served as Social Welfare Minister, Herzog knows the safety net can only catch so many people. Israel needs a well-trained, well-paid work force with skills suited to today’s economy. Our Start Up Nation needs a broader base of productive workers, and a softer touch.
On other issues, intelligent, principled, center-seeking, rooted in core values, not mindless split-the-difference averaging, should rule. As the grandson and namesake of Israel’s first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi, Yitzhak HaLevi Herzog, this Isaac Herzog can protect Israel’s Jewishness from a corrupt rabbinate as well as from lazy, paganistic modernist materialism. As an intellectual lawyer educated in America, fluent in English, he can strengthen Israel’s ties with an American Jewish community whose elites all-too-often focus on Israel’s shortcomings. As the son of Chaim Herzog, the UN Ambassador who heroically opposed the UN’s 1975 Zionism is Racism resolution, and having himself served as Minister of the Diaspora, he can teach that many who oppose settlements nevertheless abhor Israel’s delegitimization, seeing these lies as obstacles to peace which must be refuted by a Left-to-Right coalition.
And as a democrat and a mensch, who believes in Hakarat HaTov, acknowledging the good, he should push the opposition beyond simply bashing Bibi, acknowledging, for example, Netanyahu’s role, along with other conservatives such as Ruby Rivlin, in quashing the anti-democratic legislation contemplated in the last Knesset, while supporting Israel`s fight against Iran`s rush to go nuclear, as a broad, patriotic issue.
Bill Clinton and Barack Obama taught American liberals that patriotism and traditional values must not be considered conservative property; the Left too frequently relinquishes family, faith and flag as the Right tries monopolizing them. Partisans want the opposition to oppose instinctively; patriots understand the opposition should oppose intelligently. A more thoughtful, visionary, creative opposition will benefit the Left – and the Right, forcing both to build consensus and seek those all-important Israeli centrists.
These centrists include Ovadia Yosef Sephardim who are pro-peace-process, hi-tech tycoons who endorse strong unions and high taxes, supposedly “secular” Israelis who appreciate tradition, religious settlers who abhor the rabbinate and ultra-orthodox Haredim who already volunteer for army service. Those who view Israel through the Haaretz-New York Times -distorting prism only seeing Israel as a right-wing, theocratic oppressive occupier, overlook these promising anomalies – and the opportunities facing a visionary leader. Last election, six parties attracted different kinds of centrists, without one party dominating: Likud promised stability, Yesh Atid sough constructive change, Labor pursued social justice, HaTnua and Kadimah emphasized the peace process, and Habayit Hayehui celebrated traditional values.
If America’s current gridlock warns against polarization; Israel illustrates the dangers of Balkanization. Both countries would benefit from a broader, more welcoming Golden Mean, transcending partisanship, offering new ideas, and forging creative coalitions.
Isaac Herzog has the smarts, experience, and values to trailblaze ideologically not only for Israel but for all democracies. Alas, the clock is already ticking. Labor Party leaders have not benefited from long tenures – or followers ready to give them the benefit of the doubt.
Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and the author of eight books on American history, including, most recently, Moynihan''s Moment: America''s Fight Against Zionism as Racism. His next book will be on Bill Clinton and the 1990s. Watch the new Moynihan''s Moment video!