Will Israel’s Opposition Leader Oppose Netanyahu at Last?

Head of the Zionist Union Isaac Herzog has finally grasped that he needs to present the Israeli public with a proper alternative. It’s a shame he didn’t reach this epiphany earlier.

Guy Ziv
Guy Ziv
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Zionist Chairman Isaac Herzog.
Zionist Chairman Isaac Herzog.Credit: AFP
Guy Ziv
Guy Ziv

Following months of flirtation with the possibility of joining Prime Minister Netanyahu’s right-wing government, Zionist Union chair MK Leader Isaac Herzog appears to have decided to now play the role of opposition leader.

Setting aside his hawkish rhetoric that, at times, has been barely distinguishable from the bombastic pronouncements of the prime minister on the Iran deal and European Union plans to label settlement products, Herzog has recently taken Netanyahu to task for failing to provide security in the wake of the current wave of terror attacks while inciting against Arab citizens of Israel. He has been predicting that 2016 will be an election year and has declared that, as opposition leader, he has “a real obligation to present an alternative” to Netanyahu’s paradigm of living by the sword without a partner for peace.

Had Herzog reached this epiphany earlier, it is doubtful he would be polling so poorly today. A recent Knesset Channel poll finds that only ten percent of the general public sees him as most suited to serve as prime minister – behind Habayit Hayehudi leader Naftali Bennett, Yesh Atid chair Yair Lapid, and Netanyahu, who rates at twenty-four percent. Another recent poll finds that Herzog’s Zionist Union would receive only eighteen seats – a drop of six mandates – if elections were held today.

As opposition leader, Herzog has failed to offer a clear vision, blurring the lines between his policies and those of the prime minister he has sought to replace. Herzog’s Zionist Union, consisting of the Labor Party and Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah party, tried to turn last year’s elections into a referendum on Netanyahu himself, with the slogan “It’s us or him.” The public chose him. Just as in the 2013 elections, Labor studiously avoided any talk of peace diplomacy with the Palestinians, focusing instead on a populist socio-economic message.

The other center-left party, Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid, has similarly focused on populist rhetoric, such as ending military draft exemptions for the ultra-Orthodox, while paying occasional lip-service to the two-state solution (along with contradictory pledges, such as keeping Jerusalem united for eternity).

Herzog and Lapid have avoided the diplomatic-security sphere like the plague, fearing that taking on the Palestinian issue would turn away centrist voters. Rather than leading the Israeli public, they have been led by public opinion polls, which point to wariness concerning peacemaking with the Palestinians. As a result, Netanyahu’s distorted narrative has gone largely unchallenged by his mainstream rivals and his dangerous policies have remained intact.

Herzog might have learned from history. His party’s last two election wins occurred only when it offered the public a bold alternative to the rightwing government’s foreign policy agenda. In 1992, Yitzhak Rabin ousted one of the longest-running prime ministers, Yitzhak Shamir, by promising to scale back on settlement building, reorder national priorities, and reach an agreement with the Palestinians within six to nine months. In 1999, Ehud Barak defeated Netanyahu after pledging to vigorously pursue peace talks with the Palestinians and withdraw Israeli troops from south Lebanon within a year. Barak and Amram Mitzna lost the 2001 and 2003 elections, both of which took place during the bloody second Intifada, which decimated the left.

Over a decade later, despite the long absence of a diplomatic horizon, which threatens Israel’s security interests, the country’s center-left political figures continue to downplay the Palestinian issue. Exercising extreme caution rather than demonstrating bold leadership, they have ceded the security-diplomatic sphere to the right and relegated themselves to insignificance.

Last summer, in the aftermath of the nuclear deal between the Western powers and Iran, the center-left leaders competed over who could sound tougher on Iran, with Herzog stating that there was “no daylight” between himself and Netanyahu on their opposition to the Iran deal. Members of the Israeli security community, by contrast, were far more nuanced in their reactions to the deal, with some ex-generals and former intelligence chiefs even expressing support for it. Among the Zionist parties, only the leftwing Meretz party fought Netanyahu’s campaign against the deal.

The security community has been even more unified – and vocal – on the need to pursue peace talks with the Palestinians. A large number of retired, high-ranking IDF officials, former heads of the Shin Bet, and ex-Mossad chiefs have publicly supported a two-state solution as a key to Israel’s survival as a Jewish and democratic state and have blasted Netanyahu for failing to pursue peace diplomacy in earnest.

Among the Zionist political parties, however, Meretz here too has stood virtually alone in highlighting the need to negotiate a deal with the Palestinians and end the nearly fifty-year old occupation. The center-left parties have neglected this central and most existential issue facing Israel.

If the opposition has any hope of replacing Netanyahu, it will need to do more than continue pointing out his well-known flaws. It will need to offer, instead, a coherent alternative to the Netanyahu government’s failed “management” of the conflict with the Palestinians and alienation of the international community. With Israeli-Palestinian tensions at an all-time high, Israel’s international standing at an all-time low, and the prospects for a two-state solution receding, the time has come for the center-left forces to coalesce, put egos aside, and offer Israelis hope for a better future. Only then can the opposition have any real hope of preventing the reelection of Netanyahu to a fifth term and steering Israel in a new direction.

Guy Ziv is an assistant professor of international relations at American University’s School of International Service. He is the author of Why Hawks Become Doves: Shimon Peres and Foreign Policy Change in Israel.

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