Left leader’s rightward shift perplexes Israelis

How confusing is it, when an ostensibly left-wing opposition leader stakes out positions of military strength and criticizes the iconic right-wing prime minister for failing to send in the army?

MK Herzog
Borders between Israel’s ruling right-wing coalition and the opposition political left are presumed to be well defined.
Arguably, those supporting international peace efforts and undisturbed by the idea of ceding territory for an agreement with the Palestinians are, by definition, on the left while those stressing security and military themes are tagged as right- wingers by the conventional wisdom.
How confusing is it, then, when an ostensibly left-wing opposition leader stakes out positions of military strength and criticizes the iconic right-wing prime minister for failing to send in the army?
Such is the view to Israel’s political landscape as some pundits are suggesting that opposition leader Isaac Herzog, head of the Labor party, is drifting to the right while others dismiss the moves that evoke such an image as products of plain old politics.
In February, Israel’s premier left-leaning daily, Haaretz, in an editorial mocked Herzog for attempting to appear macho when he condemned the government of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu for failing to send in the army to locate and destroy tunnels being dug by Hamas terrorists along – and beneath – the border with the Gaza Strip to use for staging terror raids.
Regardless of the motivation, Herzog was playing Bibi [nickname of Prime Minister Netanyahu] to Bibi. To many of his countrymen, though, it was “Bougie” [Herzog’s nickname] playing Michael Dukakis aboard the tank circa 1988.
More recently, those suggesting that Herzog is morphing rightward cite the opposition leader’s admonition that security fences and measures to separate Palestinians and Jews need to be accelerated as proof of their position while others still see it as politics-as-usual: maneuvering to the right in order to make himself more electable for a voter base itself moving rightward.
Not so, said Michal Biran, a lawmaker from Herzog’s party. “What Herzog is saying is that when you have two leaders – Netanyahu and Abu Mazen [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s nom de guerre] – that are not making decisions and have no intention to promote the peace process then you should think about things that you can do unilaterally,” the MK, [Member of Knesset (parliament)], told The Media Line.
Although it is an attempt at pragmatic positioning for the Zionist Union – Herzog’s opposition bloc -- Herzog’s comments do not represent a shift to the right as the party continues to view the so-called “two-state solution” as the only viable option for peace, Biran said, suggesting that one’s position on that issue is the true indicator of one’s location on the political spectrum.
For Shmuel Sandler, a professor of political science department at Bar-Ilan University, Herzog’s recent rhetoric doesn’t represent a shift, but for a different reason. “He was always there; he’s not a ‘lefty.’ He’s traditional Labor Party,” suggesting the majority of the Zionist Union is to the left of its current leader, who sits comfortably in the center.
The Zionist Union formed from a merger of a small number of liberal political exiles, led by Tzipi Livni, and the Labor Party. Once the unbeatable behemoth of Israeli politics which led the country from its independence in 1948 until 1977, Labor has lately struggled to confront Netanyahu’s right-of-center Likud Party.
The Zionist Union currently holds 24 seats, to the Likud’s 30 and recent polls show a further decline if elections were held today.
Sandler did agree, however, that Israel’s opposition leader was being pragmatic. “[Herzog] would like to join the government. It’s easier to be reelected when you are foreign minister than it is when you are head of the opposition,” the professor said. And one way to do this is to take the center ground. It’s a position that Prime Minister Netanyahu has learned to profit from, and an area Yair Lapid - a centrist rival to Herzog from outside the party – would like to take, Sandler said.
Lapid, like Herzog, has been critical of the prime minster and appeared willing to increasingly demonstrate his potential to right-wing voters through tough rhetoric. For both Lapid and Herzog, this makes political sense.
“They know where Israeli opinion is – there’s no point today in advancing a left-wing opposition when the public is not there,” Sandler said, adding that this is doubly true during a period of heightened Palestinian violence against Israelis.
Unsurprisingly perhaps, MK Biran disagreed with the notion that Israeli voters are turned off to left-wing ideas, arguing that two-thirds are supportive of the notion of two-states for two peoples, a secure Israel with an independent Palestine alongside it.
Rather than a lack of left- wing thinking among voters, the problem is more the staying power of the prime minister. “Because we haven’t been in government for a long time it’s hard to imagine somebody replacing Netanyahu,” she explained. Peter Medding, of the Department of Political Science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, argued that the opposition leader is aggravating voters on both sides of the political spectrum.
He angers those on the left for appearing to be acknowledging that the peace process is not working and those on the right for being too soft on the Palestinians.
“The difference between Herzog and Netanyahu is that the prime minister seems to think that the current situation is not bad - it’s not optimal but it is more than manageable,” Medding told The Media Line. “Herzog, on the other hand, is looking for some way to change the status quo and taking criticism from the left and the right in the process.”