Politics: Labor pains, yet again

The story behind Isaac Herzog’s painful steps away from pushing for an immediate two-state solution.

Opposition leader Isaac Herzog speaks at a Limmud FSU gathering at Kibbutz Ginosar, December 18, 2015 (photo credit: ANDREY DEVEIKIN)
Opposition leader Isaac Herzog speaks at a Limmud FSU gathering at Kibbutz Ginosar, December 18, 2015
(photo credit: ANDREY DEVEIKIN)
On Sunday, February 7, a team that has not won the big game since 1999 will attempt to recover from a long list of failures in key competitions and unite in success behind its embattled leader.
That statement could of course apply to the Denver Broncos, who will be led by their veteran quarterback, Peyton Manning, at Super Bowl 50 in Santa Clara, California.
But it also fits closer to home.
The leader of the Labor Party, which has not won an election since 1999, Isaac Herzog, will convene his party’s activists for a long-awaited convention that evening, hours before kickoff in the US. The convention will obviously not be the biggest news of the day in the world, and it probably won’t attract too much attention in Israel, either.
Nevertheless, under the radar, a fascinating change is taking place in the party that led Israel in its first 30 years of existence. That change has been brewing for quite some time, but it came to the surface only last week.
Herzog dropped a bombshell in his address to the Institute for National Strategic Studies ninth annual International Conference in Tel Aviv on January 19, yet the only newspaper that thought it was headline- worthy the following day was The Jerusalem Post. The Hebrew media did not even notice how big the speech was at first, highlighting instead an address at the event by Bayit Yehudi leader Naftali Bennett in which he criticized the government he sits in.
In the speech, Herzog called for separating from the Palestinians and completing the security fence around settlement blocs in the West Bank without waiting for a two-state solution.
“I want an agreement with the Palestinians, but it is not currently possible to reach a deal, due to extremists on both sides,” Herzog said. “I want to separate from as many Palestinians as possible, as fast as possible. Let’s build a large fence between us.”
Herzog said completing the fence around settlement blocs would protect them and send a message to the Palestinians that they will remain part of Israel.
He said he envisions leaving Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem outside the fence and the settlement blocs absorbing settlers from isolated communities that would be evacuated.
“The situation will be clear to everyone,” he said. “We are settling here, you are settling there.
Live your lives, improve your economy, deal with employment. Placing the blocs under Israeli sovereignty will be part of a final agreement.”
Herzog started attracting more attention when he told French President François Hollande Friday that “attempts to reach a Palestinian state now are unrealistic. A Palestinian state cannot be established currently because the Palestinians have no leadership that controls the whole territory and that could lead such a move.’’ His predecessor as Labor leader, Shelly Yacimovich was outraged. She began attacking him from the left in radio interviews and social media. She accused him of abandoning the party’s recent ideology and presenting his own ideas without bringing them to party institutions for approval – a process that will begin with the upcoming convention.
Then Labor secretary-general Hilik Bar, who is normally close to Herzog and has generally avoided political mistakes, was caught on tape telling a party activist that if he were not secretary-general, he would have attacked Herzog “10 times as hard” as Yacimovich.
“What is this unnecessary, dangerous and delusional statement?” Bar asked. “By what right, by what authority does he say the two-state solution is irrelevant? What is he, a private individual? Is he a university professor? A talkbacker? No. He’s the head of the damn Labor Party. He’s the f***ing chairman of the opposition. He’s the head of the largest camp in Israel, which expects him to lead, or at least he’s supposed to be.”
Bar revealed that he told Herzog a thousand times that he can shift to the Center, but “if he tries to be a lame copy of Netanyahu, the people will choose the original Bibi or a gray fallback plan like Yair Lapid.”
What Bar said makes sense in theory, but politically is not necessarily so.
Last year’s election proved the public most wants a leader who makes them feel safe, according to an extensive survey in Hebrew, Russian and Arabic of 1,133 Israelis who voted in the March 17 election, which was sponsored by an American-funded, anti-Netanyahu organization.
Among voters who cited security as their top issue, 79 percent voted for a party on the Right. Fifty-seven percent said they believed that Herzog does not have what it takes to protect Israel.
The last several months of violence, which Netanyahu has not succeeded in stopping, have presented an opportunity for leaders of other parties to provide an alternative. All Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman and Bayit Yehudi chairman Naftali Bennett have to say is that they will provide security better, and they are believed due to their right-wing credentials.
What can a leader of the Center-Left do to attract security-first voters? It helps to have decades of security experience.
Former IDF chiefs Gabi Ashkenazi and Benny Gantz have that, but neither have entered politics.
Barring that, however, there are three steps that can be taken, which have been adopted over the last several months by Yair Lapid, who has gone way up in the polls at Herzog’s expense.
First of all, run away from the Left, which is extremely unpopular right now.
In an interview with the right-wing newspaper Makor Rishon last weekend, Lapid said it was clear that the Left would not be in power in Israel for the next 30 years.
“I come from a home with the legacy of the nationalist camp,” he said, noting that his father, former minister Yosef “Tommy” Lapid, was a follower of former prime minister Menachem Begin. “My principle says maximum Jews on maximum land with maximum security and with minimum Palestinians.”
As the leader of the Labor Party, Herzog has a harder time fleeing the Left. But he has taken a couple steps by calling his party the Zionist Union and holding his faction meetings in a different room in the Knesset which does not have Yitzhak Rabin’s picture in the background.
Another helpful step is to run against Europe, the UN, or US President Barack Obama, who remains the American leader least popular in Israel (though NBA star LeBron James may have challenged him with his behavior that seemed to lead to the firing of his Israeli coach, who is beloved here, David Blatt).
In a briefing to the foreign press on Monday, Lapid appeared to imply that American steps to enable sanctions relief for Iran were funding the next war against Israel. He did not hold back criticism of Obama’s administration’s decision to support rescinding sanctions on Iran, which allowed huge sums of money to flow to the regime.
“Secretary of State [John] Kerry said himself last week that some of the sanctions relief will go to funding terrorism,” Lapid told the reporters. “For us, this is not theoretical.
This money will translate itself to rockets aimed at our children. The next conflict in the North or South of Israel is just a matter of time.”
Lapid’s staff denied afterward that such quotes were intended to be critical of Obama’s administration. Perhaps they shouldn’t have, because criticizing Obama is politically helpful.
When a leader like Lapid or Herzog criticizes Obama, Europe or the UN, it bears more weight than someone on the Right.
That is why Herzog pushing Hollande to stop advancing international resolutions that hurt Israel was more effective than had the same demand been issued by Netanyahu.
“Israelis won’t accept anyone imposing decisions on them,” he told the French leader. “Israel is a sovereign state, hence any such decision or step only damages Israeli public willingness to advance toward a change in the Middle East.’’ The final step a leader on the Center-Left can take is to present diplomatic steps as moves to help Israeli security. That is what Ariel Sharon did ahead of the Gaza Strip withdrawal, what Ehud Olmert did before he won the 2006 election, and Lapid has hinted as well.
Herzog consulted with generals before announcing his plan. He decided to call for steps that can be taken immediately to ensure Israeli citizens’ safety, which contrasts him with Netanyahu standing in place.
Sources close to Herzog stressed that he has not abandoned the two-state solution, which a majority of Israelis still support, but he said, as Netanyahu and Obama have, that it cannot currently be achieved.
He called for a regional security conference and promised that the IDF would remain in any land Israel would evacuate, so the mistakes of the Gaza Strip withdrawal would not be repeated.
It is that plan that Herzog will bring to the Labor convention in nine days. He is likely to face fierce competition there, as will Manning in the game hours later when he faces off against the Carolina Panthers.
But thanks to his moves over the past two weeks, Herzog may have brought his party back on the political playing field.