Herzog's New Plan: A Brave Attempt to Redefine Israel's Peace Camp

Isaac Herzog's new peace paradigm could make or break the Labor Party, and even Israel.

Ari Shavit
Ari Shavit
Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog delivers a statement after failing to unseat Netanyahu, on March 18, 2015.
Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog delivers a statement after failing to unseat Netanyahu, on March 18, 2015.Credit: AP
Ari Shavit
Ari Shavit

Isaac Herzog is not your typical macho Israeli man. Bravery isn’t the main trait one would associate with him. But the move the opposition leader started advancing in the past week is an extremely courageous one.

Herzog is trying to redefine the peace concept, the peace process and the peace camp. If the move fails, the Labor Party’s leader will have to look for another job. But if it succeeds, it may give new life both to Labor and its leader. More importantly, it may bring about the great ideological upheaval required to create a vital political upheaval in Israel.

The old peace paradigm was forged in 1977. It consisted of a solid Egypt, a generous Israel, Anwar Sadat, Menachem Begin, a historic visit, a historic peace summit and that’s it – a final, comprehensive peace. For 20 years, Labor, Meretz and the peace movements told the Israeli public that the tremendous success story of the American-Israeli-Egyptian Camp David summit could be reenacted with an American-Israeli-Palestinian peace conference that would end the conflict once and for all.

But the Israeli public isn’t stupid. It understands that Palestine isn’t Egypt, Mahmoud Abbas isn’t Sadat and no diplomatic summit will solve the refugee problem, the Jerusalem problem, the Jewish State problem and the Hamas problem in two weeks. Even if (surprisingly) an Israeli Menachem Begin is found and even if Israeli generosity is found (sensational), there’s no Palestinian leadership or Palestinian body that could do what Egypt did in 1977.

So it’s been clear for a long time that a new paradigm is needed – the one of 1975. Not an ultimate final-status arrangement Begin-Sadat style, but gradual interim agreements Yitzhak Rabin-Sadat style. Not an abrupt act to end the conflict in Jimmy Carter’s spirit, but a slow, creative process of abating the conflict in Henry Kissinger’s spirit.

But until last week no political parent could be found for the new paradigm. Ehud Barak, Ehud Olmert, Tzipi Livni, Zehava Galon and even Yair Lapid continued talking about a final arrangement vision of one sort or another. Time after time one leader or another would go for a photo-op in Ramallah, and time after time the photo-op played into the settlers’ hands. Since the center-left didn’t come up with a realistic, relevant way of renewing the peace process, the Israeli majority was swept to the right.

This week a new leaf has been opened. Herzog started talking about dividing the land in another language. He returned to the sober realism of David Ben-Gurion and Rabin. He admitted the self-evident – there will be no final, utopian peace here in the next decade. He began to outline an alternative way – separating from the Palestinians, converging to our side of the separation line and creating a new reality while preserving the Jordan River as Israel’s security border.

For the first time in the current century, an incumbent Labor leader has broken away from the rhetoric of peace around the corner and tomorrow Abbas and the day after tomorrow hummus in Jenin. Herzog is separating from the approach of all or nothing, he has stopped waiting for the Palestinian Godot and is offering Israel to redefine its border and take its fate into its own hands.

But Herzog has a weakness. He has difficulty using exclamation marks. Even when he does the right thing he doesn’t know how to sharpen, intensify and inspire. So his immediate challenge is to turn his new message into a clear, seminal statement. To create a formative event that will do for him what the Bar-Ilan speech did for Benjamin Netanyahu. Not to make small gestures but take large steps. Not to be tactical and political, but to act strategically like a statesman.

Does Herzog have the required greatness to do so? Days will tell. Days will also determine if Labor still has the necessary vitality to propel itself back to center stage – to restart the peace.

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