Is Labor's Herzog Becoming a Real Threat to Netanyahu?

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
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Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

This was definitely MK Isaac Herzog’s week. For good and for ill, the leader of the opposition set the public and parliamentary agenda. Discerning the depth of the rift and the breadth of the gulf in the relations between the ultra-Orthodox parties and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, he entered that space this week with the aim of aggravating those relations further and reconstructing the historic alliance between the Haredim and the party he heads, Labor.

For the first time since being elected party leader, last November, Herzog gave the impression of being a figure who could endanger Netanyahu’s election to a fourth term as prime minister. He spearheaded the boycott this week of the Knesset debates and subsequent votes on three controversial laws: relating to the military draft, to what’s been referred to as “governance,” and to a national referendum before Israel makes any territorial concessions.

He went wild – and not only in Herzogian terms – on the Knesset rostrum, lashing out at Netanyahu, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Finance Minister Yair Lapid, and declared himself to be an alternative to the prime minister – all in the presence of British Prime Minister David Cameron. Herzog looked as though he was on something. In one formative moment he ripped off the geek mask and exposed before our flabbergasted eyes a new Herzog, one we hadn’t known existed.

No opposition leader had ever taken advantage of a Knesset session of this kind to settle political accounts. Who would have believed that the first to break that tradition would be the most courteous and mild-mannered of them all? “After this week people will no longer say that I have a British education,” he stated with satisfaction from the rostrum.

But behind the scenes, there was also a different Herzog – frightened and pale, almost buckling under the pressure. At times it looked as though he was taking orders from the Haredim. It wasn’t by chance that it took Labor’s Knesset faction more than 24 hours before it announced sourly that the party would have voted in favor of the draft law if its members had been in the chamber. At one point, Herzog considered issuing a different statement, to the effect that his faction supports the drafting of the Haredim but not “criminal sanctions” (which are the heart of the legislation) against draft evaders. He dropped that idea after realizing that it would spark a revolt against him in his faction.

Assuming it can hold until after the next elections, the bond between Herzog and Aryeh Deri from Shas and Yaakov Litzman from United Torah Judaism could prove disastrous for Netanyahu and Likud. If the ultra-Orthodox MKs unanimously recommend Herzog as their candidate to form a government, they, along with others, might be able to tip the scales.

Until now, the Haredim were in Netanyahu’s pocket at every juncture. In 2008, they mobilized to block the formation of an alternative government under Tzipi Livni. In 2009, they preferred Netanyahu to her again. And in 2013, they mentioned him when approached by President Shimon Peres for a recommendation, but remained outside the government.

This time, the situation looks different. Quite a few senior figures in Likud who are adept at reading the political map spoke openly this week about a final divorce, and a scenario in which Netanyahu does not succeed in garnering enough support from other parties in their consultations with the president to form the next government.

On the other hand, many Labor voters will probably not be pleased about the bear hug the Haredim are giving Herzog. Especially about Aryeh Deri. We know them: One day they hug you, the next day they’re liable to choke you. There was something grotesque in Deri’s declaration at a meeting of the opposition: “Do I see Buji [Herzog’s nickname] as an alternative to Netanyahu? Yes! And I say so without hemming or hawing.”

That utterance actually has something of a boomerang effect. It portrayed Herzog as being manipulative, and as having initiated the boycott of the Knesset sessions so that he and his colleagues would not be recorded in the chronicles of the House as voting for the new draft law. Deri likes to depict himself as having a finger in every pie, but sometimes he pulls out more than a plum.

“I am actually getting different reactions,” Herzog said at the end of the parliamentary week. “People are not troubled by Deri’s embrace. They see it as a sign that we are capable of maneuvering and of creating, when the day comes, a large center-social bloc that will put us back in power. Deri said what he said. I didn’t hug him or even smile. We didn’t talk beforehand. As usual, he translates everything into political terms.”

To say that Herzog was pleased on Wednesday evening, as he made his way back from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv, would be an understatement. He was ecstatic. “This week positioned me as leader of the opposition and as posing an alternative to Bibi,” he said. “Yvet [Lieberman] and Yair [Lapid] attacked me, but they only strengthened me,” he said with pleasure.

Do you think your constituency likes to see you cooperating with the Arabs and the Haredim, against Yesh Atid?

“It’s true that this is not a group with whom one always feels comfortable in terms of their worldview. But how is Deri any less good than Lieberman, who – as anyone who was in the Knesset saw – hugged Yair Lapid from morning to night? A new ‘bro has been born to Yair. What am I doing, when all is said and done? Presenting a discourse involving dialogue instead of the hatred being fomented by the other camp.”

Didn’t you overdo it a little in the session with Cameron?

“I see the fallout between the Haredim and Netanyahu, and I’ve always believed in creating a large bloc. All the heads of opposition parties met with us last Thursday at Labor headquarters. Five minutes into the meeting, it was clear that we were going to boycott the debates and the votes. Mohammed Barakeh [Hadash] talked about a collective resignation of all the Arab MKs. This Wednesday, Netanyahu said to Cameron: ‘Welcome to the Jewish Knesset.’ He has no problem running roughshod over people’s deepest feelings.”

I reminded Herzog that three years ago he suggested to Netanyahu and Livni, then leader of the opposition, that the threshold for entering the Knesset should be raised to 4 percent, whereas now he was weeping along with the Arabs.

“I don’t deny it,” he replied. “We suggested to the coalition to make the change in two phases: 2.75 percent in the next elections, and 3.25 percent in the elections after that. They didn’t want to hear it. I’ve never encountered such insensitivity. Like they’re holding the world you-know-where.”

Unruly neighborhood

The day before the Knesset met for a “festive” session in honor of David Cameron, panic seized the Prime Minister’s Bureau. The intelligence they received lit a red light – which turned out to be justified – concerning another international snafu, broadcast live. After MK Ahmed Tibi (United Arab List-Ta’al) had earlier hurled invective at Canadian Premier Stephen Harper, and after Habayit Hayehudi MKs insulted Martin Schulz, the president of the European Parliament – Netanyahu’s aides were worried that one more demonstration of how uncivilized the Israeli parliament is would consolidate the Knesset’s dubious reputation as a rough neighborhood, and rule out the possibility that foreign leaders will want to address it in the future.

Netanyahu’s people called opposition figures to see which way the wind was blowing. One of the MKs who got such a call was surprised to discover the depth of the insensitivity and the height of the arrogance on the other end of the line. He found that even at the peak of the protest and the abandonment of the chamber by the opposition this week – the Prime Minister’s Bureau had not yet grasped the intensity of the hatred the Haredi and Arab parties feel for Netanyahu.

“They are used to buying off the Haredim and the Arabs,” the opposition figure related. “Funds for a yeshiva here, the installation of an electric pole or traffic lights in Taibeh, and it’s all set. I made it clear to them that this time it’s different, that their loathing for Bibi has reached incomprehensible and historic dimensions. Never mind political implications: It could trickle down to the street and end badly.”

On Wednesday, just hours before Cameron’s arrival at the Knesset, all the leaders of the opposition factions met for the umpteenth time. MK Moshe Gafni (UTJ) entered the room looking distraught. “I feel more comfortable sitting here with an Arab MK than with Netanyahu in the chamber,” he said.

Gafni is one of those who met with the premier in recent months and heard him utter unequivocally that he would never lend a hand to the criminal sanctions clause in the new conscription law. That as long as he was prime minister, Torah study would not be a criminal offense. But after Lapid threatened to resign, he broke his word.

Under Herzog’s pressure, the MKs at that meeting decided that each faction would behave as it saw fit in the session with Cameron. That constituted a retreat by Herzog from a previous decision he’d supported, according to which all 52 members of the opposition, including the 15 MKs from Labor, would walk out of the chamber demonstratively as soon as Netanyahu rose to speak, and would return when it came time for the opposition leader to talk.

It’s hard to understand how he was even ready to consider such a shameful act, which runs contrary not only to the Labor Party’s ethos but also to the character of its leader. Fortunately for him, he cooled down and came to his senses at the last moment. Maybe Herzog’s predecessor as party leader, MK Shelly Yacimovich, contributed to his change of heart. Interviewed on Channel 2 News on Tuesday, she stated unequivocally that she could not conceive of her party behaving in a way that would embarrass Cameron.

This was the first time Yacimovich spoke out publicly against the person who defeated her for the party leadership last September. She steeled him. He got the message and acted accordingly.

In the end, it was the seven MKs of UTJ who left and later returned. The Arab MKs boycotted the entire event. The members of Labor and Meretz displayed honorable behavior by choosing to remain in the session from start to finish. That respectability was breached only by the screams of two Meretz MKs, Issawi Freij and Michal Rosin, which undoubtedly made Cameron wonder what the hawkers in the marketplace must sound like if this is how members of parliament express themselves.

Labor Leader Isaac Herzog speaks at a special opposition meeting in the Knesset, March 11, 2014.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi
Herzog in Auschwitz in January.Credit: Knesset Spokesperson Office