Herzog’s Failed Opportunity to Defend Israel's Democracy

Instead of taking a stand and demanding civil equality after Netanyahu's inflammatory remarks against Arabs at the scene of the Tel Aviv shooting, Herzog tried to out-patriot the right wing.

Haaretz Editorial
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Zionist Union chairman Isaac Herzog. Credit: Michal Fattal
Haaretz Editorial

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s inflammatory speech against Israel’s Arab population last Saturday night (“a state within a state”) provided a golden opportunity for opposition leader MK Isaac Herzog. For the first time since his defeat at the ballot box Herzog was given the chance to mobilize and unite those who oppose the right wing’s rule, by calling for civil equality between Jews and Arabs, and for the uprooting of institutional discrimination and of popular racism directed at minorities.

Netanyahu was apparently worried by a survey published last Friday, showing that Likud was losing support to rival party leaders Yair Lapid, Moshe Kahlon, Naftali Bennett and Likud renegade Gideon Saar. The prime minister exploited the terror attack on Tel Aviv’s Dizengoff Street in which an Arab citizen was the suspected perpetrator, and repeated his trick from election day: Strike out at the Arabs and save your government from collapsing.

The obvious response of the opposition should have been to take a stand defending the minority community, while raising the banner of civil equality. Herzog should have gone with his caucus members to an Arab community, and delivered his counter speech to Netanyahu’s incitement there.

All he did was make do with a pale condemnation of the “moral nadir” reached by the prime minister. Instead of mobilizing in full force against discrimination and racism, his criticism focused on “the failing struggle against terrorism.”

Public expressions of racism, which culminated in the removal of two Arab Israeli passengers from a flight due to pressure by Jewish Israeli passengers, were not enough to rile Herzog. He preferred to use the Knesset podium to attack those who support an international boycott on Israel.

Herzog’s mistake is manifest on two levels, a political and an ethical one. There is no more important mission for the opposition than to save Israel’s democracy and the call for equality between its citizens should stand at the epicenter of the struggle against the campaign of oppression and muzzling waged by the Netanyahu government. The political blindness shown by Herzog is no less grave. The left can only return to power with the support of Arab voters and their representatives. However, Herzog’s attempts to outdo the right wing in appearing to be patriotic, Zionist and attuned to the country’s security needs leaves the field open to Netanyahu. While continuing with his incitement, the prime minister passed a cabinet resolution aimed at partially correcting the budgetary discrimination against Arab citizens. When the time for taking stock comes, Likud will take credit for bringing about a change in priorities and the Zionist Union will come across as the party of discrimination.