Israel's New Labor Party Leader Doesn’t Bark or Bite

Isaac Herzog may grow into the job, but if he doesn’t, will he be noble enough to step aside and let someone from the outside become party leader?

Uri Misgav
Uri Misgav
Uri Misgav
Uri Misgav

In both the positive sense and the negative sense, Shelly Yacimovich has been granted admission to Israeli politics’ hall of fame as a politician who made her presence felt. She drew fire and attention. The recent Labor party primaries, where she hoped (vainly, as it turns out) to make history by becoming the first party leader in years to be reelected, have been regarded primarily as a public opinion survey among the party’s registered voters on the issue: Yacimovich – yes or no. After her defeat, one should treat with a large measure of respect the candidate who defeated her by a wide margin, which, in terms of numbers, can be measured by only a few thousand votes.

In this weird primary, Isaac Herzog proved that all the disparaging remarks made about him were true: He is a well-connected gray wheeler-dealer, craving power, forging alliances and making deals. In short, a politician. That’s the way to play the game of party politics: You go into battle, analyze if and how you can win, and work hard to attain victory. It might not be particularly cool or sexy, unlike resolute status uploads on a Facebook page or a weekly speech to the nation, but it might pay off when the time comes to slowly count the ballots at the party’s national headquarters.

Now Herzog will need to prove that the dire prophecies about what will happen if he is elected party leader were groundless. He has two alternative courses of action. If he softens the Labor Party’s current opposition line and awaits the right moment for his party to crawl back to the government, he will be dealing a death blow to the Labor Party. As noted, Herzog is a politician with keen political instincts. He might be baby-faced but he is no one’s fool. Thus, it is hard to imagine that he would choose that option. It would be much more reasonable – and much more appropriate – to choose the other and remain, come what may, opposition leader in Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, to lay the foundations for bringing back prodigal Labor voters who left the party fold; and to proudly wave the flag of Israel's security alongside that of social justice. Unlike his predecessor, it would seem perfectly natural and credible for Herzog to do so without his creating the impression of a political leader cynically engaged in damage control.

He might grow into the job. There have been such cases in local and world politics. Then again, he might not. The question then arises whether he will be noble enough to step aside and let a promising candidate from the outside become party leader, if such a person should appear just before the next general elections. But there is still plenty of time before a scenario of this kind could unfold. Right now, it will be interesting to see how Herzog will function vis-à-vis the Yacimovich camp, which has been battered and humiliated. This is a camp that primarily consists of young party activists who are committed to an ideology and who have brought new, militant blood to a party suffering from a hardening of the arteries.

The problem was that their entry into the party was at the expense of – not in addition to – the Labor Party’s base, which Yacimovich turned her back on. This was the source of Labor Party’s glass ceiling under her leadership.

One thing is certain: Herzog is not expected to encounter any difficulties in dealing with the Labor Party's Knesset members, who supported his rival, if he is able to conceal the disgust naturally brought on by a group of politicians who showed abundant hypocrisy and spinelessness. In a private conversation, one of them admitted that he acted out of pure fear. Another related, with a tone of utter surprise in his voice, that the party leader contacted him this past week in order to “bark at him” (those were his words) for not investing enough effort to ensure her reelection.

Herzog doesn’t bark and doesn’t bite. Early Friday morning, it emerged that he knows how to win, even if his victory might be a disruption of the rustle of history’s wings.

Labor Party Chairman Isaac Herzog with his predecessor Shelly Yacimovich.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

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