Breaking down his neck

Opposition leader Isaac Herzog needs to consolidate his credentials as a bona fide national leader to keep potential rivals at bay.

Zionist Union head Isaac Herzog speaks to the press (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Zionist Union head Isaac Herzog speaks to the press
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
After more than nine years in office, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu remains an enigma. Hated in the Likud, despised by the center left, not trusted by Jewish settlers or the religious parties, he is in total control as Israel’s undisputed leader. The main reason for this anomaly is that in the past three elections, Netanyahu has been the only candidate etched in public consciousness as a dependable father figure capable of protecting the nation in a stormy neighborhood.
Throughout their history, Israelis, facing huge security challenges, have, more than anything else, sought in their leader a reliable champion in time of strife. Zionist Union opposition leader Isaac Herzog’s greatest weakness has been his failure to create that image. Recognizing this lacuna, Herzog has talked tough, played up Labor’s defense team and added Hatnua’s experienced Tzipi Livni as co-leader. So far it hasn’t worked.
So much so, that already people in a restless center left are casting about for a new candidate to match Netanyahu as a protective father figure. The leading, but as yet undeclared, contender is Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai, a former brigadier general, air force base commander and fighter pilot.
The model of prime minister as trusted protector of the nation goes back to Israel’s first leader, the Labor movement’s David Ben-Gurion, who also served as his own defense minister. Ben-Gurion cultivated the image of the tough-minded, decisive, far-seeing wise old man ( hazaken ), who understood international political processes, Arab intransigence and the need for a strong, uncompromising military.
His central political tactic was to promote himself as the trusty father of the tenuously emerging nation and discredit potential rivals as incapable of assuring its future. If the Revisionists (forerunners of the Likud) ever came to power, he warned, they would destroy the country. And when in 1954 he was briefly succeeded as prime minister by Labor colleague Moshe Sharett, Ben-Gurion did all he could to undermine him, again propagating the perception of himself as the unique “one in his generation,” the only trustworthy national savior.
Levi Eshkol, highly experienced when he took over from Ben-Gurion in 1963, was perceived as safe and steady until he stumbled over a phrase in a radio ad - dress to the nation on the eve of the 1967 Six Day War. That tiny aberration was enough to entail Eshkol’s immediate disqualification as father figure; Moshe Dayan had to be coopted as defense minister in his stead to placate the na - tional psyche.
The Likud’s Menachem Begin only came to power 10 years later, after the shock of the 1973 Yom Kippur War finally cost Labor its hitherto unquestioned capacity to keep the country safe.
Other examples of the prime minister as father figure or failed father figure abound. In 1992, Labor’s Yitzhak Rabin, the Six Day War chief of staff, narrowly defeated Likud incumbent Yitzhak Shamir largely because of his security credentials. Without them, the American withholding of loan guarantees following Shamir’s perceived intransigence after the 1991 Madrid Middle East Peace Conference would probably not have been enough.
After Rabin’s assassination in 1995, his successor Shimon Peres lost to Netanyahu, after an unchecked spate of Arab terror led to Peres’s failure to inherit Rabin’s mantle as national protector.
Labor’s Ehud Barak, a former chief of staff, won the premiership in 1999 as Israel’s most decorated soldier and then lost it 20 months later after failing to contain the second intifada. His successor, the battle-hardened Ariel Sharon, veteran of all Israel’s wars, easily trumped him as the ultimate warrior father figure.
Netanyahu returned to power in 2009, promising a steady experienced hand at the helm and solutions to security questions raised by Sharon’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, in 2005. Like Ben- Gurion before him, he has tried to arrogate the role of national protector solely to himself and discredit potential rivals as inept. His modus operandi has been to play up the dangers facing Israel and present himself as the only savior.
Iran is a case in point.
For over a decade Netanyahu has used the Iranian nuclear threat to spread existential fear and make electoral gains as the only leader capable of defusing it. His decision to go on fighting the international nuclear deal reached in Vienna, in mid- July, is partly an attempt to reinforce his image as national protector and stems from a reluctance to surrender such an effective political card.
This could boomerang.
Netanyahu’s failure to prevent what he calls a “historic blunder that puts Israel’s survival at risk” could ultimately erode his national protector image especially since his blunt, uncompromising efforts to torpedo the deal have seriously strained relations with the US and the rest of the Western world.
And it could get worse for Netanyahu, given the way his government has misrepresented the deal. For example, government spokesmen deliberately gave the impression that all inspections of Iranian nuclear sites would require a 24- day authorization process, when in fact inspections of all known sites will be on a 24/7 basis. The 24-day period refers to suspected Iranian cheating in new sites. Maybe it would give them time to try to hide evidence. But it would be virtually impossible for them to build a clandes - tine program that way – especially given the 24/7 monitoring of existing sites.
Netanyahu’s unreserved slamming of the deal put Herzog on the spot. In order to appear as tough, or as he put it, “tougher than Netanyahu on security,” he too panned the deal and even offered to fly to America to explain the government’s position. But rather than strengthening his credentials as a potential national protector, this exacerbated perceptions of Herzog as a weak opposition leader and fueled talk of the need for a more assertive center left candidate.
Ron Huldai, the front-runner in a race that has yet to begin, has been sounding out people from across the center left political spectrum about a possible leadership bid.
His security credentials are impressive. Born on Kibbutz Hulda in 1944, he was a fighter-bomber pilot over Egypt and Syria in the 1967 Six Day War; shot down three enemy planes in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, going back into action after making a forced landing on the Israeli side of the lines when his plane was hit by an Egyptian missile; completed 26 years of army service in 1989 as commander of pilot training with the rank of brigadier general.
From 1993-1998, he was principal of the prestigious Herzliya high school, and from 1998 to the present he has been, after Shlomo Lahat, Tel Aviv’s second longest serving mayor. Under Huldai, Tel Aviv has become the country’s most trendy city and enhanced its status as the symbol of liberal secular Israel.
Crucially, powerful former Labor boss Shelly Yacimovich, 55, is one of the people who have been meeting with Huldai and she has hinted that she will support him in a bid for party leader, if she doesn’t run herself. The feeling in Labor is that Huldai will run, if Yacimovich and other top party people roll out the red carpet, making his election as leader virtually a done deal. It is not clear whether he will have the stomach to compete in a race he could lose.
There are other potential, if less likely, contenders. At one stage Gabi Ashkenazi, 61, seemed certain to be Labor’s next big thing. A former chief of staff with a direct down-to-earth style, he could have made an ideal trusted father figure candidate. That is until he was implicated in untoward machinations designed to influence who his successor would be. In August 2013, the Attorney General launched a criminal investigation. A decision on whether or not to prosecute is imminent. If Ashkenazi is indicted, any political aspirations will be over; if the case is closed, he could be a player.
Ashkenazi is being assiduously courted by Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid. Lapid, 51, wants him as his No. 2 and candidate for defense minister – precisely to strengthen Yesh Atid’s credentials as a possible party of power. In Labor, however, Ashkenazi, if cleared, could go for the top spot.
Another former chief of staff waiting in the wings is Ehud Barak. Barak, 73, however, does not pose a direct threat to Herzog, 54, who once served as his closest aide. He is persona non grata in Labor after splitting the party in January 2011 and widely reviled in the country after a calamitous term (1999-2001) as prime minister. Nevertheless, Barak, recognized as one of the finest analytical minds in Israeli politics, is seeking an avenue for a second political comeback. How this might impact on Herzog’s position remains to be seen.
Indeed, the most immediate threat to Herzog on the center left comes from outside Labor. Recognizing Herzog’s weakness, Yesh Atid’s Lapid has been making high-profile overseas trips, giving frequent media interviews, generally talking tough and attacking Netanyahu far more vehemently than Herzog does – denouncing the prime minister’s failure to prevent the Iran deal as the “greatest foreign policy failure in Israeli history” and calling for a state commission of enquiry. All this is calculated to encroach on Herzog’s space as opposition leader and embed Lapid in the public mind as the main alternative candidate for prime minister.
To cope with the mounting pressure, Herzog ostensibly has a number of options. Theoretically he could move to join Netanyahu’s coalition and beef up his national leadership credentials as foreign minister, making a mark on the international stage. After his offer to assist Netanyahu on Iran, rumors to this effect abounded. But at a Labor Party convention in mid-July, Herzog strongly denied any such intention. Netanyahu’s narrow right-wing government, he declared, should be replaced, not thrown a lifeline.
The truth is even if Herzog wanted to join Netanyahu’s coalition, fierce opposition in Labor and the Zionist Union as a whole (which includes Livni’s Hatnua) would not allow it. Inter alia, Livni has a veto which she would not hesitate to use.
Another avenue theoretically open to Herzog would be to try to persuade Lapid to defer to his leadership, on the grounds that only united around a single leader will the center left be able to defeat Netanyahu. That didn’t happen in the run-up to the last election and is even less likely now. Lapid, who genuinely believes he has a good chance of becoming prime minister, is unlikely to step aside.
This leaves Herzog with just one reallistic option – establish himself as a national leader or be replaced. This means imposing himself as a strong leader of the opposition, standing up to Netanyahu and offering Israelis very different solutions to their complex security and socioeconomic problems. In other words, Herzog needs to find an authentic oppositional voice and not get sucked into Netanyahu’s trap of taking hawkish positions to avoid being labeled unpatriotic and, in so doing, ostensibly endorsing the right-wing narrative.
On the technical level Herzog can control the timing of party leadership primaries. They are due to be held with - in 14 months of Labor’s election defeat in March; he could bring up the date to catch his would-be rivals unprepared, or defer it to gain more time to establish himself as a bona fide national leader.
Whatever he does, his rivals are already breathing down his neck. And Netanyahu will find new threats to frighten people into rallying round him. Herzog needs to keep his nerve and convince the country that he can be trusted to protect it