The Labor Party chairman, who ostensibly leads the opposition against Israel’s extreme-right government, says he doesn’t want to be portrayed as a lover of Arabs. And the chairman of Habayit Hayehudi, a party of settlers including people who believe in different laws for Arabs, tweets a response condemning him: “The Arabs of Israel make up about 20 percent of the population. They are not ‘droves’ and we don’t hate them.”
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It’s an upside-down world. Or it’s the Israel of 2016, where the hatred and fear of Arabs are values, or at least vote magnets. It’s a world where the left doesn’t exist at all and the center – a bogus term that describes the soft and statesmanlike right – is fighting on the margins of supporters of racist separatism and transfer.
Isaac Herzog’s slip of the tongue, like Labor MK Erel Margalit’s video showing him shouting and cursing (and espousing a certain measure of truth), show how much the language of the right dominates both in content and form.
Labor’s leaders, including those laying claim to Herzog’s shaky throne, think that with the stroke of four or even 10 Knesset seats they can steal from Yair Lapid’s empty bag and return to power. They’re certain that by bringing in a former general they’ll bring non-extremist Jews back into the fold. This idea, which has failed for 40 years except for the brief flickerings of Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak, is their action plan.
The truth is, even if Labor puts a candidate like former army chief Gabi Ashkenazi at the helm, even if he wins an election based on hatred for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, with the first stabbing or bombing the right will beat the drums of racist incitement and bring down the government. If Likud’s Yariv Levin and Zeev Elkin behave this way when they’re cabinet members, imagine Habayit Hayehudi leaders Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked in the opposition.
To govern, and more importantly to stay in power long enough to have an effect, you have to build as broad and diverse a camp as possible. Menachem Begin lost eight elections until he won, and on the echoes of the tragedy of the Yom Kippur War he built a following that included Liberals, Revisionists, settlers, Mizrahim and religious Jews. The Labor Party (and Meretz to its left) has no such following, but only a homogenous electorate that’s shrinking demographically and culturally.
Amir Peretz and Shelly Yacimovich, the most reasonable candidates to replace Herzog, could have exploited his slips and offered a change. Unlike the message the party leader is fleeing, the Arabs oppose the right-wing government and occupation, while yearning for equal rights.
Instead of exploiting the opportunity and saying, for example, that the Labor Party wants and needs to be a home for Arabs too, Yacimovich addressed Herzog’s pathetic tactics, and Peretz preferred not to respond at all. That’s not how you play defense.
The inclusion of Arabs into the party is a difficult task, not just because of the racism in Jewish society, but because of the radicalization in the Arab community. Their political leaders follow the Arab nationalist line of the Balad party instead of implementing the line of Ayman Odeh, the head of the Hadash party and the broader Joint Arab List. But if Labor and the Zionist left want to avoid the demise of Labor’s forerunner Mapai, this difficult task is the direction they have to take.