Labor’s new leader

If Herzog succeeds he could make a crucial contribution to our political discourse.

Isaac Herzog 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/ The Jerusalem Post)
Isaac Herzog 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/ The Jerusalem Post)
Labor’s new leader Isaac (Buji) Herzog’s victory late last week over incumbent Shelly Yacimovich for the leadership of the Labor party took many by surprise. In hindsight, the upset was in large degree a result of Yacimovich’s failed leadership style. She was aggressive and strong-willed and, because she is a woman, these traits, which might have been seen as an asset in a man, tended to alienate and arouse resentment among her male colleagues in Labor.
But it was more than that. The lion’s share of her impressive political drive was fueled primarily by her left-wing socioeconomic convictions and her passion for pursuing “social justice.” Diplomacy, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and regional issues simply did not elicit in her the same levels of emotional involvement.
And Yacimovich was convinced that with little hope of reaching a negotiated peace, the vast majority of her potential constituency felt the same way. The socioeconomic demonstrations of the summer of 2011, a paradigm of civic involvement that mobilized more Israelis than ever before in Israel’s history, seemed to be a sign that the Labor Party, if it returned to its socialist roots, could capitalize on a sea change in focus away from the intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict to more mundane – and eminently more resolvable – problems such as the price of cottage cheese.
Yacimovich’s domineering leadership style combined with her conviction – at least before the January elections – that a social democratic agenda had to be the main emphasis of the campaign, resulted in many casualties.
Those included Peace Now’s Yariv Oppenheimer, who was pushed out of a realistic place on Labor’s list because he symbolized – more than most politicians – Labor’s central part in bringing the two-state solution into the political mainstream. Even the defection of Amram Mitzna and Amir Peretz might be seen as the collateral damage of Yacimovich’s leadership failures. The same could be said about the inability of Yacimovich to form a united front together with Hatnua’s Tzipi Livni and Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid before January’s elections.
In recent weeks, Yacimovich has voiced regret in the ears of Labor activists for failing to make pursuit of a two-state solution a plank in Labor’s platform. She might have succeeded in bringing to Labor a younger constituency with a more left-wing economic agenda, but by neglecting the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, she lost large percentages of the party’s traditional support base – at least that’s what insiders are claiming now.
On this backdrop, Herzog – a man with impeccable pedigree (his father was president, his grandfather was chief rabbi), keen political instincts and a unique ability to bridge differences and foster cooperation, takes the helm of Labor. Though he has yet to prove himself as a political leader who could conceivably challenge Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in the next national elections, Herzog might be transformed by his new role as opposition leader and head of the party that once upon a time enjoyed political hegemony. Herzog definitely has the qualities needed to heal the rifts inside Labor and build a coalition with other center-left parties like Hatnua.
Our political landscape is in desperate need of a strong, unified opposition that can offer a viable alternative not just to the socioeconomic agenda of the present government but also to its treatment of the single most burning issue confronting Israeli society – the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Netanyahu has come a long way toward recognizing that in the long run the status quo is untenable.
He has on several occasions expressed his fears that the demographic threat represented by Palestinians and by Arabs living inside the Green Line would turn Israel into a bi-national state. He said as much as early as April 2012.
And in June of this year, about a month before the present round of talks began, he told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee “if we go into direct negotiations, it is likely to be very hard but the alternative of a bi-national state is one we do not want.”
Netanyahu has also adopted his own version of a two-state solution, an idea which originated with the Labor party. However, the Israeli public is entitled to hear other, more adamantly pro-two-state voices. Public opinion surveys have consistently found that a strong majority of Israelis continues to support a negotiated peace agreement with the Palestinians. Herzog, as head of an opposition with a broad agenda, could potentially provide that alternative voice. If he succeeds he would be making a crucial contribution to our political discourse.