This week we discovered a new Isaac Herzog: threatening, showing his teeth, waving a nunchaku at his rivals. He promised to liquidate whoever brought about the new police examination of him in connection with the funding of his race in the 2013 Labor Party primary against MK Shelly Yacimovich. If Shas leader and Interior Minister Arye Dery had said anything like that, the media would have slaughtered him, left-wing politicians would have lynched him and someone would have filed a complaint to the police for obstructing the investigation or scaring witnesses. But the collective response to Herzog, the affable and harmless kid we all know, ranged from shrugging of shoulders to forgiveness, along with some who praised him for his macho stance.
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As long as the police examination continues – and certainly if it becomes a full-fledged investigation – Herzog is “neutralized” as a politician. His party rivals find this situation convenient for the present. They’re keeping their distance from him and aren’t flaying him. But neither are they going out of their way to give him backing.
The affair hit the headlines with Herzog at a personal and political low point. That was the background for the renewed talks – reported here two weeks ago – for Zionist Union to enter the coalition, with the aim of concluding the deal during the Knesset’s spring break. In fact, the talks weren’t “renewed,” because they never stopped. There were ups and downs and tactical halts, but the fire never went out for a moment. Opposition leader Herzog and Prime Minister Netanyahu maintained an open channel of conversations, feelers and overtures that evolved into exchanges of draft agreements.
Beneath a fog of sweeping denials, in some cases hysterical in tone, by Herzog, he had a liaison person working tirelessly with authorized representatives of Netanyahu in an effort, which proved unsuccessful, to arrange the blood wedding between Likud and Zionist Union. The liaison has been Yossi Kucik, who was director general of the Prime Minister’s Office from 1999 to 2001, under Ehud Barak. It was then that he got to know Barak’s cabinet secretary, Isaac Herzog, well. Afterward, Kucik moved to the business sector and established a private firm that specializes in wage agreements and media strategy, in partnership with Meirav Parsi Zadok, who was Prime Minister Barak’s media adviser. Kucik also had some political episodes, such as leading the coalition talks with Likud for Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah party after the 2013 election. More recently he had dealings with Tourism Minister Yariv Levin (Likud). He is also incredibly discreet. Yet despite all his qualifications, he failed.
Following several conversations I had with people involved in these recent Herzog-Netanyahu dealings, it is possible to say, cautiously, that the main fault in their failure probably lies with Netanyahu. If he’d really wanted the alliance, it was only a matter of price. Herzog is dying to enter the government that he occasionally blasts, and quite persuasively, in the Knesset. He has conditions, of course – mainly the expulsion of Habayit Hayehudi – which Netanyahu won’t hear of. It’s not that he’s so fond of Shaked and party leader Naftali Bennett; the premier just can’t afford to have the whole parliamentary right – Habayit Hayehudi and MK Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu – in the opposition. The Palestinian issue is also a tough nut to crack, but after Herzog declared that a Palestinian state is out, the “ideological” distance between him and Netanyahu was drastically abbreviated.
But Netanyahu wasn’t ready to pay enough. And as Herzog’s standing in the polls deteriorated, Netanyahu concluded that the opposition leader was in such dire straits that he could be bought at end-of-season prices. In principle he was right, but in one matter he was mistaken: Herzog can’t come to the Labor Party convention with an agreement to join the government unless he has the public and practical support of Yacimovich on his right and MK Eitan Cabel on his left. Or the other way around. Yacimovich, who would become economy and industry minister in such a government, is making difficulties on the way to entering the chuppah with Netanyahu but has never ruled out the option. Cabel is so deeply immersed in his insistence that the whole story of “contacts” with Likud is a journalistic fiction, that it’s hard to see him suddenly supporting the move.
In any event, everything is now on hold. As long as the threat of a criminal investigation hovers over Herzog, there is zero chance that Zionist Union will enter the government. He doesn’t have the authority, the power or the moral validation for that. If the attorney general decides to drop the case, Herzog will emerge strengthened. Kucik will take the documents out of the briefcase and the talks will be “renewed” again. Or not.
Imagine that the deputy speaker of the German Bundestag, who’s a member of a coalition party whose leaders serve as the education and justice ministers, were to tweet that his wife, who’s about to give birth, doesn’t want a Jewish woman in the same room with her in the hospital. Because, you know, those Jews, with all their prayers and their large families.
How would, say, Prime Minister Netanyahu react? What would Justice Minister Shaked write on her Facebook page? What a hue and cry the government would raise and what a furious protest the Israeli ambassador would lodge. But when it comes to Arabs, “our Arabs,” it’s a different story.
Not to mention the other MKs of Habayit Hayehudi, rolling their eyes self-righteously. Not even under torture could you get them to badmouth their dear friend, MK Bezalel (“My wife is absolutely not racist”) Smotrich. Education Minister Bennett, the leader of Habayit Hayehudi, which includes Tekuma, Smotrich’s party, responded quickly. In a party meeting he spoke of all people being created in God’s image, “Jew or Arab.” This time, however, he didn’t rush to television studios to blast the errant MK. That’s treatment he reserves for his nemesis, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon (Likud).
Bennett has no authority over Smotrich. But one might expect that he would take some action, even symbolic, against someone who is contaminating their common space so flagrantly. Not a word did we hear from Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel, leader of Tekuma. It looks as though the divorce between husband (Habayit Hayehudi) and wife (Tekuma) is a fait accompli. They just didn’t tell the kids. We’ll see if Ariel and Smotrich can win four seats on their own next time, and not on the coattails of Bennett, about whom much can be said, but not that he’s a racist.
Smotrich’s racism is not only Jewish and Kahanist, it’s also Ashkenazi. Moroccan Jews also hold celebrations, known as haflot, when visiting relatives in the hospital. That attitude is the depressing common denominator between Tekuma and Habayit Hayehudi, which Bennett tried – in vain – to hide in the election campaign, with his unfortunate effort to recruit former soccer star Eli Ohana to the slate. Maybe he’ll have more luck next time.