Reality Check: A new way for Labor?

Isaac Herzog’s decision to run for the leadership is the best news this embattled and dispirited party has had in a long time.

Herzog 311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Herzog 311
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Welfare and Social Services Minister Isaac Herzog’s decision to run for the Labor Party leadership is the best news this embattled and dispirited party has had in a long time. Indeed, given that recent polls have Labor sinking to six seats in the next Knesset elections, Labor has been very short of anything remotely resembling a positive development since mistakenly joining Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s coalition.
Labor has lost its way, and party chairman Ehud Barak is not the person to lead it back to electoral success. Labor needs a leader with a firm voice and a clear direction, and Barak, as shown in his pathetic zigzagging last week over the loyalty oath for non-Jews wishing to become citizens, provides neither.
Herzog called it right: The decision to force a loyalty oath to Israel as a Jewish and democratic state on non-Jews (and not all would-be citizens) reflects, as he told Army Radio, the “whiff of fascism on the margins of Israeli society. The overall picture is very disturbing and threatens the democratic character of the State of Israel. There has been a tsunami of measures that limit rights.”
(And you don’t have to be a card-carrying leftist to see the danger of the loyalty oath. Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin, whose loyalty to the Land of Israel is unquestionable, also spoke out against the measure, arguing that the proposal brought no benefits and “could arm our enemies and opponents in the world in an effort to emphasize the trend for separatism or even racism within Israel.”)
BARAK STAKED his, and the Labor Party’s future on a partnership with Netanyahu. Now, 18 months down the road, it’s becoming clear that all the talk of Netanyahu truly being ready to make a historic compromise with the Palestinians is just talk. The prime minister’s demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state as a condition for extending the settlement freeze for another two months is a feeble attempt on his part to shift the blame for a breakdown in the peace process to the Palestinians. Netanyahu, it seems, is not prepared to pay the territorial price of a two-state solution.
In this situation, there is no point in Labor staying in the government. In fact, there have been numerous times when Labor should have left, the latest being Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s embarrassing speeches at the United Nations last month, in which he basically called for the expulsion of Israel’s Arab citizens.
Netanyahu’s limp response to an address by his foreign minister which totally undermined the government’s official position, followed by his support for the racist loyalty oath, should make it abundantly clear to anyone who professes to support the values of the Labor movement that there is no place for Labor in a government headed by Netanyahu and heavily influenced by Lieberman.
Barak’s argument that Labor can lead Netanyahu toward peace no longer holds water. At the beginning of this government’s term, with Netanyahu’s Bar-Ilan speech and maybe as recently as his own speech to the UN, in which he reaffirmed his determination to reach a two-state solution, there was hope that Netanyahu had thrown off his ideological shackles and was prepared to seek a deal.
The events of the past few weeks, unfortunately, have shown that Netanyahu has returned to the Bibi of old. The loyalty oath brings back memories of his racist 1996 election slogan “Bibi is good for the Jews,” while his refusal to extend the settlement freeze is reminiscent of the way he successfully used settlement building to torpedo any chance of revitalizing the Oslo process during his first term. The decision to announce a building tender for new housing in east Jerusalem at the end of last week casts further doubts on Netanyahu’s sincerity when it comes to the peace process.
NOW THAT Herzog has thrown down his marker, he must immediately work to change the Labor Party’s constitution, that has the next leadership elections scheduled for 2012. Labor cannot wait that long.
Herzog should also resign his cabinet portfolio and join the other Labor MKs on the backbenches who want to see the party leave Netanyahu’s coalition.
By leaving the government, Herzog won’t bring about its immediate collapse, but it will be the first sign that the coalition is beginning to crumble.
Labor needs a spell in opposition to reinvigorate itself and shape a new message to take to the voters.
With Kadima siphoning off the center and the center-right vote, Labor needs to return to its social-democratic roots and tack leftward, offering a comprehensive vision, both diplomatically and economically.
This will be no easy task, but Israel is in desperate need of a social-democratic party that will close the ever-widening gaps between the haves and the have-nots, as well as one which will snuff out the “whiffs of fascism” Herzog has detected. The disturbing poll in this weekend’s Yediot Aharonot, which showed that only 63 percent of the Jewish population believe that non-Jewish (i.e. Arab) citizens should have the right to vote, shows that the lurch to the far Right is not confined to the country’s political margins.
The writer is a former editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post.