Why Herzog Must Join the Government

Zionist Union opting to be in the opposition is a luxury we cannot afford. Its presence in the coalition is critical to preserving Israel as a liberal democracy.

Carlo Strenger
Carlo Strenger
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Zionist Union chairman Isaac Herzog.
Zionist Union chairman Isaac Herzog.Credit: Reuters
Carlo Strenger
Carlo Strenger

It is currently the bon ton among Israel’s left to argue that Zionist Union leaders Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni should stay true to liberal values and not join the coalition government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

In part, this is the aftershock caused by the pre-election illusion that a center-left government was in the offing. Also, it is the expression of liberals’ deep and understandable frustration about their continued failure to regain Israel’s leadership. I believe this position is mistaken, and that it is critically important that Herzog joins the government.

Let us look at the fashionable arguments for staying in the opposition.

The first argument is: “Let the voters see what happens when we have a pure right-wing/ultra-Orthodox government. They’ll find out how bad it is, see the light and bring the left to power in the next Knesset election!”

This argument does not take into account that most Israeli voters (like most voters all over the world) don’t have an in-depth grasp of international relations. They do not realize how destructive right-wing policies are for Israel’s standing. If anything, they believe the right-wing propaganda that the world hates us whatever we do.

Israel’s international isolation is sure to increase because of the policies of a right-wing/ultra-Orthodox government. But the political right’s electorate will not turn to the left as a result. Instead, it will buy into the political right’s propaganda that the world hates Jews and Israel; that we need to stand tall; that Masada will not fall again and dig even more deeply into the right.

The second argument against Herzog joining the coalition is a strategy based on leaks from the White House shortly after Israel’s March 17 election: “A pure right-wing/ultra-Orthodox government will provide President Barack Obama with the reason he has been waiting for to lift the U.S. veto against recognition of Palestine as a full member state by the United Nations Security Council. Once the United States no longer vetoes recognition of Palestine, the left’s long-term goal of saving Israel as the democratic homeland of the Jews will be reached. Let the UN force the two-state solution on both Israel and the Palestinians, and give us what we believe to be necessary.”

While this argument has some initial plausibility, in-depth conversations with politicians, academics and journalists close to the U.S. administration during my recent stay in New York have led me to the conclusion that this assumption is most likely wrong.

Obama sees the agreement with Iran as his crucial geostrategic legacy, and he will do what he can to salvage it. As opposed to this, he probably sees the Israel-Palestine conflict as intractable, certainly with Netanyahu at Israel’s helm. Obama will invest all his political capital in the Iran nuclear deal, and he is unlikely to open a second front by taking an unpopular position against Netanyahu and the Republican-run Congress. In short, Obama will probably not go out of his way to support UN recognition of Palestine, even if he believes it is vital for Israel’s future.

Ultimately, the idea of staying in the opposition is based on a deep illusion: it is that the liberal center-left is likely to regain power in the foreseeable future, and that Israel’s electorate just has to realize how destructive the political right’s policies are.

But this, I am afraid, is based on the profound mistake that political voting is based on rational reasoning – whereas in reality it is an expression of voter’s identities, both on the right and left. At this point in Israel’s history, most Israeli Jews are more committed to Israel as a Jewish state, whereas only a third of the Knesset (Zionist Union, Yesh Atid and Meretz) is fully committed to keeping Israel a Western-style liberal country. Hence, the majority is unlikely to vote for the center-left in the foreseeable future.

It is time for Israeli liberals to realize that we are a minority, that we need to start thinking as such and defend our minority rights. A pure right-wing/ultra-Orthodox coalition is bound to create irreparable damage to Israel’s liberal democracy, and make life difficult for Israeli liberals: it will change the legal system, the composition of the Supreme Court and curtail freedom of expression.

Herzog and Livni’s staying in the opposition is a luxury we cannot afford. Their presence in the coalition is critical to prevent antiliberal legislation and preserve Israel as a liberal democracy.

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