What Is the Labor Party Still Doing in a Right-wing Government?

Minister Herzog tells Haaretz he worries about Israel's future should the right gain a total majority.

Minister Herzog, what are you and the other ministers from the Labor Party doing in the Netanyahu government? There is no diplomatic process, Israel's international status is at a low, relations with the United States are in a crisis and your party is being wiped out, according to opinion polls. How long are you going to remain there?

It's not easy to be a Labor Party member in the government right now. We are all under pressure and taking stock. On the one hand, we feel from the depths of our hearts a sense of responsibility and a need to act like responsible adults. On the other hand, we are taking hits from our supporters in the center-left camp - not necessarily because of the latest crisis that caused the most commotion, but especially because of the statements and positions of [Foreign Minister] Avigdor Lieberman and sometimes also the actions of [Interior Minister] Eli Yishai.

What have you done in the government's first year in office?

We feel almost every day that we are protecting the most basic values that are particularly important for people in the center-left camp, and we don't get credit for this. First, the best protection for the judicial system comes from our struggle inside the administration. Second, we have prevented the harm to women that would have occurred by expanding the authority of the rabbinical courts. Third, we defend Israel's democratic discourse and prevent harm to various sectors, even if we don't always agree with them, such as human rights organizations and the New Israel Fund. Fourth, we show concern for the Arabs of Israel, the kibbutzim and moshavim, and the pensioners.

We are busy almost every day blocking hallucinatory initiatives the public isn't even aware of, first and foremost because of the coalition agreement that gives us vital tools to thwart dangerous moves. With our limited forces, we brought about important economic and social moves during the economic crisis. And finally, we had a decisive influence on the fact that Benjamin Netanyahu, the leader of the Israeli right, adopted the vision of two states for two peoples and the fact that the government he heads approved a decision to freeze construction beyond the Green Line.

Why should you protect the right from itself? Why shouldn't the public be exposed to the right-wing government's true intentions and judge for itself?

That's a logical position, but abandoning the country to the right alone would be crazy and irresponsible. Today the majority in the Knesset is clearly right-wing, and I am extremely worried about what could happen to the country if the right has a total and clear majority both in the government and in the Knesset. My colleagues and I often feel uncomfortable about the internal right-wing discourse to which the government is drawn even without realizing it, and we find ourselves protecting values and positions that are essential for the state.

For how long?

The diplomatic issue is the main thing keeping us in the government, because we have a genuine wish to reach a breakthrough with the Palestinians and the Syrians. And we see the possibility of ending this partnership if there is no change of direction in the coming months. The approaching moment of truth, when we have to ask ourselves if we can continue with this partnership, will undoubtedly be in September, at the end of the construction freeze.

You are a member of the security cabinet and you reaped a great deal of experience as a minister under four prime ministers. Who is the real Netanyahu? Yitzhak Rabin or Yitzhak Shamir?

I won't be able to decide until we see decisive action. But even if he's Rabin, it's possible that he'll have to try to bring Kadima into the government and get rid of those elements that are preventing him from advancing with the negotiations.

I have spoken to Netanyahu many times in the past year, and my decision, after an inner struggle, to join the coalition stemmed among other things from a very long and personal talk one night. During that talk I was convinced that he wants to, and is ready to, reach a significant breakthrough with the Palestinians. For the sake of decency, I have to say a few things that my friends in the center and on the left don't like to hear.

Netanyahu, who took two quantum leaps, expected the Palestinian leader, Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas], the president of the Palestinian Authority, to go into a room with him, close the door and start holding negotiations. Netanyahu can go to the public today and say "What do you want from me? Why could Abu Mazen sit in the study at the Prime Minister's Residence with Ehud Olmert and why is he not prepared to sit there with me?"

They are boycotting a right-wing leader who might surprise them and missing an opportunity of historic magnitude for the Palestinians and the world, which doesn't understand that, despite all the complications, it should push Abu Mazen forward and lead him into that study at the Prime Minister's Residence.

What lessons have you learned from the crisis with the United States?

I would like to suggest to the right that it drop the rhetoric of going head to head with the U.S. administration and President Barack Obama. The argument with the United States must get out of the headlines, and there must be a return to diplomatic prudence. The right saw opportunities in all kinds of corners of Jerusalem in the past few months, and this includes right-wing associations and elements in the municipality and government.

They have caused the utmost harm to construction in Jerusalem. We have reached a situation where it will be much harder to build in certain areas of Jerusalem - and this is imprudent conduct. Ramat Shlomo, which is in the heart of the consensus, and the Hurva Synagogue, which has been in the heart of the [Old City's] Jewish Quarter for hundreds of years - and with which my family has been associated for 80 years - are now paying the price for [the neighborhood] Sheikh Jarrah and Beit Yonatan [a building in East Jerusalem's Silwan neighborhood].

We must come together in the direction of the Clinton formula - what is Jewish is for the Jews, and what is Arab is for the Arabs - and derive our future policies from that.

The latest surveys show a further decline in the strength of the Labor Party, which is gradually being wiped out. Does it have a future or should it end its current role and join forces with Kadima, Meretz or perhaps even Likud?

Labor can recover from the crisis and first and foremost has to shake up its values. The party can make a unique contribution to the political spectrum as a social-democratic party that has something to offer to the individual, his position in society and his chances of dealing with [social] gaps and receiving equal opportunities.

The party must drop the double-talk and adopt a clear and straightforward position. It has good people and the capability to do this, but this requires a shake-up of its values and organization, and at the end of the process also a discussion about its leadership.

But before we turn to personnel questions, we have to focus on rebuilding on a moral and ideological level. Our Knesset faction is calmer now and the issues we are concerned about are more clear. But this has to be felt on the ground as well, and I plan to be very active in that process.