Netanyahu and Herzog’s Blessed Road Not Taken

Was there really a willingness to begin talks with the Palestinians and Arab League? Now we get a government that can easily commit a spectacular national suicide.

Tomer Appelbaum

You can say a lot of bad things about Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and opposition leader Isaac Herzog, but there's one thing you can’t take away from them. Quietly, under the cover of darkness, they tried to produce a diplomatic-political surprise like none other here in many years.

Ever since Election Day, Netanyahu had ostensibly turned blacker than black – the Arabs streaming to the polls, the bill allowing the suspension of MKs, his waffling over the soldier who shot the already-wounded terrorist in Hebron, his potshots at IDF Deputy Chief of Staff Yair Golan, his speech of despair on Holocaust Remembrance Day. And suddenly we’re talking about a regional peace conference, romancing the Egyptians, flirting with the Saudis, coordinating with the Europeans and freezing West Bank construction outside the major settlement blocs.

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Ostensibly, Herzog had come to terms with the fact that he would bleed slowly and die in disgrace. Yet suddenly we have a diplomatic move integrated with a political move to create a breakthrough strategic move. The former ambassador to the United Nations and the son of a former ambassador to the United Nations worked together persistently, diligently, creatively and discreetly for six months to forge a path meant to change Israel’s political landscape and moral climate.

But Netanyahu and Herzog failed. The countermoves by Avigdor Lieberman and Netanyahu’s loss of his senses reshuffled the deck. Still, it’s important to understand the rationale behind the process that has apparently collapsed.

First, Netanyahu. He’s afraid of the 80 days between U.S. Election Day and the day Barack Obama actually leaves the White House. Netanyahu also knows that there are regional Arab opportunities that he can’t exploit alone.

Herzog, therefore, was a godsend for him – a statesman, a democrat, legitimate and nonthreatening. A perfect political fig leaf with a diplomatic magic wand that would prevent Obama from firing a deadly Tomahawk missile at the Israeli royal palace.

And Herzog. He knows he’ll have no life as opposition leader. Shelly Yacimovich will eat his liver, Erel Margalit will poke his eyes out, and Amir Peretz will burn him at the stake. But since Herzog is a statesman at heart, he wasn’t willing to make a totally cynical move reeking of political corruption.

That’s why he drew up a breakthrough peace initiative. Before actually becoming foreign minister the Labor party chairman acted like a foreign minister and built an American-European-Arab-Palestinian coalition that would support his entry into the coalition.

Of course, there was never any symmetry between Netanyahu and Herzog. It was always clear that if the maneuver turned into a stinking maneuver, Netanyahu could withdraw to his nationalist bunker and even widen it. If he decides to sacrifice both Herzog and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, he’ll have a strong, extremist right-wing government that can easily commit a spectacular national suicide.

Herzog, on the other hand, knew he might pay for the move with his political life. If this failure is final, he’ll have to gather his things and go back to the warm house waiting for him in Tel Aviv’s Tzahala neighborhood. The left won’t forget, the center won’t forgive, and Herzog’s political skull will land near the skulls of many others who forged alliances with Netanyahu only to be crushed at the foot of his regime’s fortress.

Still, when the dust of battle settles, it will be interesting to examine the true substance of the diplomatic outline Netanyahu and Herzog were working on. Was the Labor leader really given the right to veto all construction outside the settlement blocs? Was there really a willingness to begin negotiating with the Palestinians and the Arab League with reference to the Saudi initiative?

Was there really a plan to convene a peace conference this summer to be attended by Egyptian, Saudi, Jordanian, Palestinian and Israeli leaders? Did Israel’s peace community really undermine the peace?

It’s quite possible that history will judge the Netanyahu-Herzog move differently than the furious left and the impassioned media are judging it today.