Lament for the Left: Is Herzog the right man for the job?

To return to power the center-left needs a well-crafted peace and democracy ideology and an attractive prime ministerial candidate – Herzog may not be the man.

Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog’s meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah (photo credit: MOHAMAD TOROKMAN/REUTERS)
Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog’s meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah
EVER SINCE losing the March election, opposition Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog has been boasting that he is “more extreme on security” than Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In making the somewhat dubious claim, Herzog is trying to convince an Israeli electorate that has moved palpably to the right that he can be trusted to defend Israel in time of crisis and not to give away the store in exchange for peace.
On all the big issues of the day, Herzog has been straining every fiber to strike a right-wing pose: After a mid-August meeting in Ramallah with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, he emphasized that he had told Abbas that he would not tolerate violence and terror - that they had talked peace came a distant second; on the Iranian nuclear deal, he has been as vociferously unnuanced as Netanyahu in condemning it; and on the tenth anniversary of the 2005 disengagement from Gaza, he called it “a mistake from a security point of view,” ignoring its main strategic aim: a first major step toward separation between Israelis and Palestinians on the road to the two-state solution he champions.
As leader of the center-left peace camp, Herzog is well aware of the existential threat that failure to achieve a two-state solution poses to the Zionist enterprise.
But, as part of his right-wing posture, he does not harp on this as the main distinguishing feature between him and the Netanyahu-Bennett government’s disastrous one-state praxis.
From time to time Zionist Union spokesmen do emphasize the danger inherent in the government’s hurtling toward a single state between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River with a Palestinian majority.
In a late August New York Times op-ed, Labor Party Secretary General Hilik Bar called it “Israel’s other existential threat.”
But Herzog has essentially abandoned the two-state – one-state argument as the main battleground between left and right as a vote-losing proposition.
This has left him facing a cruel Catch-22 paradox: In moving to the right and adopting right-wing positions to get elected, Herzog ostensibly concedes the ideological argument to the right and with it any reason for electing him. If his Zionist Union is merely a pale shadow of the right, who needs them when you can have the original? Herzog reached this pass after a steady decline over the past two decades in the hold on the national imagination of the left’s peacemaking ideology, partly as a result of peacemaking failures, Palestinian terror and, paradoxically, right-wing appropriation and subsequent discrediting of the two-state model.
Ironically, the left-tending peace camp as a major political force was largely the creation of hawkish former Likud prime minister Menachem Begin. Begin’s 1979 peace deal with Egypt showed an incredulous nation that peace with Arabs was possible.
BEFORE THAT a succession of Labor-led administrations had been highly skeptical.
David Ben-Gurion as prime minister never believed in the feasibility of peace with the Arabs, perceived as a rejectionist whole; on the Palestinian track, Golda Meir famously declared that there was no Palestinian people and therefore no one to make peace with; and on the very eve of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat’s breakthrough visit to Jerusalem in 1977, IDF Chief of Staff Motta Gur, later a Labor government minister, was inherently suspicious enough to warn that it might be a terrorist ruse.
But after the Camp David Accords with Egypt, which passed in the Knesset on Labor votes, Labor leaders, first Shimon Peres and then Yitzhak Rabin, became fervent peace converts. And, in 1992, the peace camp under Rabin came to power with a mandate to make peace with the Palestinians and the rest of the Arab world.
The result was the Oslo process with the Palestinians and peace with Jordan. In those long gone days, the peace ideology reigned supreme. But after Rabin’s assassination in 1995, and Netanyahu’s attempt to turn the clock back as prime minister from 1996 to 1999, the peacemaking process faltered.
And although Labor leader Ehud Barak’s landslide election victory in 1999 gave the peace camp a renewed mandate, Barak’s failure to conclude a deal with Yasser Arafat and the intensive, five-year-long wave of urban terrorism that followed put paid to the left’s ideological ascendancy. Barak also handed the right a major ideological victory on a platter with his self-serving claim that he had failed to make peace because there was no genuine peace partner on the Palestinian side.
The “no peace partner” mantra was adopted on all sides of the political spectrum, leaving the would-be peacemakers ideologically bereft. They were further embarrassed when Ariel Sharon, a paragon of right-wing thinking, appropriated the two-state model and his successor Ehud Olmert tried to negotiate a peace treaty with the PA’s Abbas, leaving the Labor/left with no unique peacemaking selling point.
Netanyahu effectively delivered the coup de grâce by adopting the two-state model and then ostensibly proving it to be unfeasible.
According to him, the failed American 2013-2014 mediation effort shows it cannot be negotiated; the terror that followed Sharon’s Gaza disengagement rules out a unilateral move; and the current chaos in the Arab world makes withdrawal from the Jordan River, let alone most of the West Bank, untenable, at least for now.
The left played into his hands. They did not vigorously contest the “peace is not possible” thesis for fear of being seen to be unpatriotic – an apologetic, self-conscious corner into which Netanyahu had brilliantly manipulated them.
After Barak provided the “no partner” mantra, his elected successor Shelly Yachimovich veered away from the Israel-Palestine debate which she thought she couldn’t win to a socioeconomic agenda she thought she could. As a result she was not perceived as a leader of national stature. She also attempted to cozy up to the settlers, conceding even more points in the ideological debate on peace to the right.
Herzog’s attempt to emphasize his security credentials at the expense of peacemaking messages is a variation on much the same theme. It led to a sharp two-part exchange in late August with left-wing Haaretz commentator Gideon Levy who mocked what he called “the left’s counterterrorism unit” and dubbed the Zionist Union leader “Rambo Herzog.”
Most significantly, in his reply Herzog indicated (much like Netanyahu) that he no longer believes a two-state solution can be negotiated with the Palestinians alone.
“People like Levy are stuck in the 90s and don’t understand that today you can’t simply go into a room, speak to the Palestinians and come out hugging one another after having signed a full peace agreement, going back to the 1967 lines and dividing Jerusalem,” he countered.
What was needed, he insisted, was a much wider negotiating framework. “After Gaza fell to Hamas and Israel was attacked with rockets and tunnels were dug under kibbutz dining rooms in the south, we can’t go on talking about a bilateral agreement with the Palestinians. We must talk about a trailblazing diplomatic move backed by the moderate countries in the region,” he argued.
There is merit in this holistic approach.
The only problem is that to bring in the Arab world, an agreed framework for a viable two-state solution with the Palestinians would have to be on the table. Bringing in the Arab world could bolster such a process, not replace it.
But Herzog’s fear of being rendered unelectable has led him to play down the Palestinian imperative and tread lightly in his criticism of the right-wing government’s handling of the big issues of the day.
“Only if on security issues and in times of danger, the large camp I lead shows that we always back the state and only after the danger passes turn to political argument… will we have a chance of getting elected,” he maintained in the exchange with Levy.
FURTHER TO the left, Meretz leader Zahava Galon finds herself caught in a triple vise that threatens the party’s very survival: the decline of left-wing ideology; the raising of the threshold for Knesset representation; and the movement of committed left-wing voters to Labor/ Zionist Union if they see any chance of replacing Netanyahu. That is precisely what happened in the March election, leaving Meretz with only five seats, which at one stage looked like being just four, or even none if it failed to beat the raised 3.25 percent threshold.
Indeed, the forfeiture of the ideological debate to the right has left Meretz out on a limb. To most voters its pure left-wing messages seem naïve and irrelevant. Under pressure, Galon is mulling an electoral pact or merger with the Zionist Union to ensure her party’s survival. But here too there is a catch. Given Herzog’s attempts not to appear too left-wing or soft on security, he will, for now, probably rebuff any approaches she makes.
Moreover, Galon insists on fighting the ideological fight not only in the political arena but also in the country’s schools.
“If we don’t succeed in promoting our worldview in the education system, and I am talking about a massive entry of pluralistic organizations into the primary and secondary schools… we won’t manage to influence the young people and we won’t be able to replace the government,” she declared at a late July Peace Now convention.
It is much more than a question of who governs. It is also a question of national identity. The left needs to fight the ideological fight both to return to power and, more importantly, to halt the country’s rightward ideological slide. Otherwise the right is likely to remain firmly entrenched, moving further right all the time and taking the nation with it. Its message, sometimes implied, sometimes spelled out, is no peace in our time, an iron fist on security, and democracy is a source of weakness, as the more radical among them attack liberal legislation and the Supreme Court.
In these circumstances, the left’s counter- message should be that its toughness on security, which should be taken for granted, does not mean weakness on peace, democracy, the rule of law or equality for Israeli Arabs.
To return to power the center-left needs three ingredients: a well-crafted peace and democracy ideology passionately fought for, a large electoral framework or frameworks, all around an attractive prime ministerial candidate with convincing security credentials.
A winning center-left alliance could include Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu, Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid, the Zionist Union and Meretz. Most likely they would run as two separate but complementary blocs, Kulanu and Yesh Atid (who are already talking) and the Zionist Union with Meretz, which could give the Zionist Union leader the extra few seats he/she might need to become prime minister.
Many are already discounting Herzog as the leader who could carry the center-left to power. But it is too early to judge. What is clear, however, is that Herzog, as he tilts toward the right in search of security credentials, has yet to prove he can be the man.