Amid 'Arab-lovers' Storm, Opposition Leader Herzog Defends 'Zionist Approach'

Critics want Zionist Union to serve Palestinian interests, Herzog says, while politicians from left urge his resignation and Habayit Hayehudi's Bennett draws thinly-veiled comparison to Netanyahu.

Isaac Herzog, April 18, 2016.
Ilan Assayag

Zionist Union Chairman Isaac Herzog took to his Twitter account on Wednesday morning to respond to criticism sparked by his comments that attracting voters requires members of the center-left party to stop giving the impression they are “Arab-lovers.

“I’ve heard there are a few [people] who are not satisfied with my Zionist approach,” Herzog tweeted. “If they want the chairman of the Zionist Union to give preference to Palestinian interests, I have a message for them: They should recalculate their route,” he said, quipping on GPS services' message to drivers.

Herzog’s comments sparked protest for the left, even from within his party, with MKs Shelly Yacimovich and Zouheir Bahloul, an Israeli Arab, taking him to task for what he said.

Ayman Odeh, the chairman of the Joint Arab List, expressed particularly harsh criticism of Herzog Wednesday: “Herzog is not relevant and is not a leader and has long needed to resign as leader of the opposition. Herzog has turned himself into a cheap and pale imitation of [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu.

"Particularly during a difficult time like this, we have to present a real and brave alternative to the government of Netanyahu and the right, an alternative of a solution of just peace, of equality and democracy and of a common fight for the future of us all,” the leader of Israel's sole Israeli-Arab party said.

In response to the controversy, Herzog’s office issued the following statement: “We are not afraid to deal with problems exposed in the public’s attitude toward the Labor Party and Zionist Union. One of the problems is the mistaken and dangerous trend of trying to label us as taking the needs of the Palestinians into consideration before those of the State of Israel and its citizens. This is clearly a mistaken position, but it is increasing in magnitude among those groups that were not familiar with us during the last election, and it’s important for us to reach out to them [as we campaign] to ‘expand circles.'”

Michal Rozin of the left-wing Meretz party said: “It seems as if Herzog is running for the job of the prime minister’s spokesman. The opposition chairman’s courting of the government is crossing new bounds of incitement, hate and racism. Herzog’s statement is not leadership but rather a populism resulting from political distress. If the chairman of the opposition thinks that what will save his poor leadership is incitement, it would be better if he resigned.”

Reacting to Herzog’s comments, Education Minister Naftali Bennett of the right-wing Habayit Hayehudi party tweeted: “The Arabs of Israel constitute about 20 percent of the population. They are not ‘droves’ and we don’t hate them.” The “droves” comment is an apparent reference to Netanyahu’s exhortation to his supporters on election day last year to turn out to vote to counter Arab voters streaming “in droves” to the polls. “They are citizens with equal rights,” Bennett said, “and I am their education minister, and I am sick of repeating this.”

Bennett’s party colleague Bezalel Smotrich, who has come in for criticism for anti-Arab comments, wrote on Twitter: “The nervous reactions on the left to Herzog’s statement are simply crazy and show the extent to which the left is cut off, lacking self-confidence and obsessive over guilt feelings toward the Arabs of Israel.”

Herzog’s controversial comments on Tuesday were made at a reception for party activists in Ashkelon, where he discussed changes in Israeli society and the need for the party to change to attract voters.

“Where do we enter the hearts of the public, so they’ll believe that we have not only experience but the ability to change the situation in the country without abandoning security, heaven forbid, and without giving a sense that I have encountered in endless meetings with the Israeli public that we are always Arab lovers? It’s complicated, but that’s part of the issue, that’s part of the challenge. We are a party that always knew how to be a ruling party.”

Shortly after the remarks were reported by Haaretz, Yacimovich, whom Herzog defeated as chairman of the Labor Party, the largest Zionist Union component, tweeted: “Is this the proper response by the head of the opposition to demonstrations by the extreme right?”

Bahloul, who had come in for criticism for comments of his own this month for objecting to the label “terrorist” regarding some of the Palestinians committing acts of violence, demanded an apology from Herzog “on behalf of Arab society in Israel.” Bahloul is himself Arab.

Herzog was coming up with his own catchy slogan for the next election campaign, Bahloul claimed, saying it was apparently inspired by Netanyahu’s comment about Arab voters going “in droves” to the polls.

”Disregarding 20 percent of the population in such a blatant way, masquerading as a soft right wing that winks to those expressing harsh rhetoric in public and feeling pressure from every stray opinion poll is not how you create an alternative to the government,” Bahloul said. “It’s another [case] of the puzzling moral decline of the party of the legacy of Yitzhak Rabin. I condemn Herzog’s remarks and demand an apology on behalf of Arab society in Israel.”