Borderline views: Herzog can do it

Herzog will lose his long-term future if he succumbs to the short-term benefits of joining, and being swallowed up by, the present administration.

Herzog and Peres 370 (photo credit: Mark Neiman/GPO)
Herzog and Peres 370
(photo credit: Mark Neiman/GPO)
From 1974 to 1997, the Labor Party had only two leaders –Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres. For 15 years, from 1977 to 1992, Peres was the undisputed party leader, although Rabin was always there, breathing down his neck. Peres also returned for two later periods, from 1995-1997 and then again from 2003 to 2005 (when he was well into his 80s).
Amazingly, Peres never won a single election outright for prime minister during this entire period but succeeded in remaining party leader. Since the days of Peres, however, as soon as a party leader fails to bring the party back to power, he/she invariably pays the price by being ousted in favor of a new messiah.
This week, the party elected yet another new leader, Isaac “Buji” Herzog, to replace Sheli Yehimovitz. She lasted but two years in the position, thus equaling the record of Amir Peretz but more than either Binyamin Ben-Eliezer (Fouad) or Amiram Mitzna, both of whom survived a little over a year in what has proven to be a poisoned chalice, as much due to the internal machinations of a party that often seems bent on ultimate self-destruction than on its electoral popularity.
Yehimovitz changed the party in ways that probably rebounded on her during last week’s election. She attempted to shift the party from its image as the party of the establishment (despite the fact that it has not been in power in its own right since the 1990s) and bring in a new, young generation of socially active party members and activists. But her potential success was usurped by Yair Lapid and his Yesh Atid party, and her attempts to cash in on the social revolution of recent years failed to pay any dividends, as the Labor Party took only third place in the last elections. She also put all her eggs in the social and economic basket, totally ignoring the critical issues of foreign affairs, security and peace rather than strike a balance between the two. She left a vacuum on matters related to the peace process and the future of the Palestinians, allowing the present government to move the country ever farther to the right without any serious opposition.
But it is possible that this time, the party has elected a leader who will be staying around for a long time.
Herzog comes to the party leadership as a young and dynamic 53-year-old, bringing with him a wealth of experience as a lawyer in one of the country’s top law firms, government secretary during Ehud Barak’s tenure as prime minister, minister of housing, minister of tourism, minister of social welfare, minister for responsibility for Diaspora affairs and fighting anti-Semitism and long-serving MK in government and as a loyal member of the opposition. By all accounts, he was one of the country’s most successful social welfare ministers during a period of tenure when many of Israel’s critical social and welfare problems came to the fore of public concern.
And although he probably doesn’t like being reminded about it every day, Herzog comes from a blue-blooded family of Israeli politicians and diplomats. His grandfather, after whom he is named, was Israel’s first chief rabbi in a period when the chief rabbi was an internationally and theologically respected figure, unlike the current chief rabbinate, which is known more for its dirty election campaign and financial frauds. Chief rabbi Herzog was as much an international statesman on behalf of Israel as he was a religious leader, and he brought much respect to the new country wherever he appeared.
His father, Haim (Vivienne) Herzog, was the country’s much-respected sixth president and equally famous for his denunciation of the Zionism is racism motion at the United Nations during his tenure as Israel’s ambassador to the UN in the 1970s.
His uncle, Abba Eban, was Israel’s Mr. Diplomat, serving as the country’s first ambassador to both the US and the UN and later as the country’s foreign minister, respected throughout the world for his diplomatic skills.
Add to that his other uncle, Ya’acov Herzog, who was Israel’s ambassador to Canada in the 1960s, advisor to Golda Meir on Jewish and Diaspora affairs and an initial candidate for the post of British chief rabbinate in the 1960s, and you couldn’t have a much better family background for understanding the wide range of social, political, foreign and religious issues a party leader, and a potential future leader of the country, has to deal with.
But Buji Herzog is not a prince who has been handed his public career on a silver platter. Far from it. He has worked his way up the political system, proving at every juncture that he has the expertise and skills required to navigate his way through the minefield of Israeli politics in general and the far more complicated and suicidal minefield of Labor Party politics in particular.
During the past year, he has worked his way, quietly and efficiently, through the party apparatus, visiting party branches and activists throughout the country, creating new bridges between the old party faithful who had been turned away by Yehimovitz and the disenfranchised and disadvantaged party members of the periphery and the development towns, to obtain his resounding victory in last week’s primaries.
Unlike so many party leaders of the past 15 years, Herzog has what it takes to make that final effort at getting the Labor Party back on its feet and providing a true opposition to the present government and an alternative government in the next elections.
But it will not be easy for a party which, until the advent of Yehimovitz, was seen as out of touch with the aspirations of a generation of young Israelis, for whom the messages of the new millennium, rather than the outdated messages of the 1950s and 1960s, are the guiding light for an Israel looking to the future.
Herzog must create the bridge between the old and the new, keeping both groups in the party and winning back the support of all those who voted for a party with no clear values – Yesh Atid – if he is to maintain a strong base of support. He must also create a message around which the entire left wing, even parties such as Meretz, can unite around a common denominator – as indeed the right wing have succeeded in doing, despite their internal differences – if he is to have a solid base for challenging the present government in the next elections.
Given the relative stability of the Netanyahu administration, Herzog has three full years to build on this, and he should not be deflected by the calls that will be coming his way this week – from Yair Lapid, Tzipi Livni and perhaps even Binyamin Netanyahu – to join the government in yet another government of national unity – another word for a government of national paralysis. The one thing that can be said for the present government is that it is a government with a clear ideology, an extremist right wing one, that needs to be replaced rather than diluted, as has been the case all too often in the artificiality of national unity governments.
Herzog will lose his long-term future if he succumbs to the short-term benefits of joining, and being swallowed up by, the present administration.
Yet again the Labor Party has woken up to a renewed feeling of hope for the future. But, like so many other times in the past 15 years, this new hope can quickly be dissipated if the wrong short-term decisions are made.
Herzog is neither a journalist (like Yehimovitch or Lapid) nor an army general (like Mitzna or Ben-Eliezer), but he can draw on the expertise of each to assist him in his task. Add to that his own legal and political experience and his intricate knowledge of social and welfare problems, foreign affairs and the Diaspora Jewish community, and he has what it takes to create a new holistic vision for the party and the country.
For once, the Labor Party has made the right decision.The writer is dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben-Gurion University. The views expressed are his alone.