Israel’s Opposition Leader Herzog Is Guilty: Of a Complete Absence of Leadership

It’s time for an Israeli leader of the opposition who actually understands that people voted for Labor to get rid of Netanyahu and all he stands for – not to mimic his policies nor crawl into bed with his coalition.

Gershom Gorenberg
Gershom Gorenberg
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Labor leader Isaac Herzog at a Zionist Union faction meeting on March 31, 2016.
Labor leader Isaac Herzog at a Zionist Union faction meeting on March 31, 2016.Credit: David Bachar
Gershom Gorenberg
Gershom Gorenberg

I'm not one of those people who think Isaac Herzog should resign as head of the Labor Party just because the police reportedly want to launch a criminal investigation against him about alleged campaign-funding shenanigans. The law in these parts likes to leak allegations, sometimes in order to put pressure on a potential suspect. The public hasn't been shown a shadow of a reason to believe Herzog broke the law.

No, I think Herzog should go home because he has yet to show a shadow of a reason for the public to suspect him of leadership. His presence at the head of the party - and of its alter ego, the Zionist Union - is a throwback to Labor's colorless and aloof past.

Herzog was elected head of the party in November 2013. Fewer than 29,000 people voted in the primary, less than one-fifteenth the number who voted for Labor in the previous national elections. Rather than reflecting the will of the electorate, the primary was a slightly enlarged version of a smoke-filled room.

He defeated the previous party leader, Shelly Yacimovich, an outsider who actually had a social democratic vision appropriate for a party called Labor. She'd lifted Labor from a historic low of 13 Knesset seats to 15. She did not, however, return Labor to power. She was correctly accused of ignoring the occupation, the Palestinian issue and peace. That would have been a good explanation for the party dumping her if, in her place, it had chosen a charismatic politician with a convincing vision for making peace. 

Instead it chose Herzog. He'd spent over two decades as a party insider, rising for no discernable reason. His qualifications consisted of a Labor pedigree - his father was a Knesset member and president; his uncle, Abba Eban, was foreign minister. Next to the word "apparatchik" in the dictionary, his picture should appear. Punch drunk from repeated electoral blows, the party chose someone from the old elite that had explained every loss since 1977 as evidence of something wrong with the public.

Still, he had a shot at being elected prime minister last year. Support sprung not from love of Herzog but from disgust with Benjamin Netanyahu. The alliance he made with Tzipi Livni, along with Labor's historic role as one of the two major parties, gave Herzog the most realistic means of unseating Bibi. 

The moment that Herzog's campaign came apart was a minute after the media reported artist Yair Garboz's infamous speech at a Tel Aviv rally of anti-Netanyahu forces. Garboz's us-and-them rant included people who "kiss amulets" and "prostrate themselves at holy men's tombs" among the forces of evil destroying Israel. Unpack the rhetorical caricatures, and he was referring to everyone who is Mizrahi, religious, or both.

It was a heaven-sent opportunity for Herzog: a chance to redefine himself and the party by denouncing an extremist whom the public associated with his political camp. By 7:00 the next morning, the old media and the new should have carried a clip of him passionately decrying Garboz's bigotry and dissociating himself from anyone who saw the election as a contest for power between secular Ashkenazim and everyone else. 

He didn't see the opening. In a post-election interview, he described Garboz's outburst as a "detail," as proof that "the devil's in the details." The picture of Labor as a party that looks down on most of Israel remained intact. 

In opposition, Herzog has had the chance to position himself and his party as a clear alternative to the Likud and its partners. Instead, he has repeated two classic Labor mistakes. 

The first is to believe that if Labor is "centrist," which is to say more hawkish, it will succeed in drawing votes from the right. In January, Herzog presented his, er, vision for dealing with the Palestinian issue. There's no hope of negotiations toward a two-state outcome, he said, because neither Mahmoud Abbas nor Netanyahu has the courage. That is, he bought into the right's narrative that "there is no partner" and treated Netanyahu's hold on power as a given.

So he channeled Ariel Sharon. He proposed building walls: completing the West Bank fence along the route that effectively annexes major West Banks settlements, and putting up a new wall that divides outlying Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem from the city. 

Labor has tried before to be Likud-lite. It never works. Given the choice between the real thing and the imitation, swing voters prefer the genuine article.

The second classic mistake of Labor in opposition is to crawl into government. If reports of recent days are true, Herzog was negotiating to do just that, until the police investigation put everything on hold. The justification for a unity government is always that Labor will have the stature of a ruling party and will moderate Likud policy. The reality is that a unity government prevents Labor from presenting an alternative while enabling the Likud to build settlements, evade negotiations and manage the economy for the good of the rich.

Fortunately, no one else in the Zionist Union seems interested. Livni says there's an "abyss" between her party and the Likud. For the moment, the entire Knesset delegation is opposed. 

Maybe they've noticed that people voted for Labor to get rid of Netanyahu. Maybe next they'll reach the same unanimity on the need to replace Herzog. My advice: don't blame the police investigation. Say out loud that Herzog represents what Labor needs to leave in the past in order to be a real contender for power. 

Gershom Gorenberg is the author of "The Unmaking of Israel" and "The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements, 1967-1977." Follow him on Twitter: @GershomG

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