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Isaac Herzog, leader of the non-opposition

Many people are describing opposition leader Isaac Herzog’s maiden speech in the 20th Knesset as the speech that could have won him the election. But is he offering an alternative that’s any better than Netanyahu?

Labor party leader Isaac Herzog at campaign headquarters on election night, March 17, 2015. His slate, the Zionist Camp, fell far short of expectations that he might unseat PM Netanyahu. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

Labor party leader Isaac Herzog at campaign headquarters on election night, March 17, 2015. His slate, the Zionist Camp, fell far short of expectations that he might unseat PM Netanyahu. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

Mabrouk on you, the new government تشوفو على وجهها الخير – may it bring only good things. That’s how we, the naïvely optimistic Arabs, congratulate people on new things. Regardless of what we feel, we know how to congratulate.

But let’s not spend any more time on the new government. Sooner or later, Israel’s 34th government will join its predecessors in the dustbin of history.

What I would like to focus on, rather, is the leader of the opposition, or, actually, why anyone would associate the word “opposition” with Isaac Herzog.

His maiden speech in the 20th Knesset last week was described by many as sharp and confrontational. I watched it again, I read the transcript again – to no avail. Maybe a closer look at his recent track record would do the trick?

Isn’t this the same Herzog who was chronically undecided about the proposal to disqualify Haneen Zoabi from running in the elections, ultimately voting to keep her out? Isn’t this the same Herzog who embraced Tzipi Livni, and gave her a center-left makeover, straight out of the “anything but Bibi” assembly line? Isn’t it the same Herzog who supported last summer’s Gaza offensive, and bragged about having been in the loop on January’s strike on Syria?

The most entertaining part of the speech was his unconvincing attempt at passing himself off as a bully. He cried: Mr. Prime Minister, don’t you dare raise your hand to the High Court of Justice, the media, and “Israel’s minorities.” I think the latter means us, the “Palestinians,” the “Arabs” of Israel. I wonder who the genius is who came up with the term “minorities.” We used to be the majority! That’s how I’d like people to describe us from now on: “Israel’s ex-majority.” It sounds nostalgic. And empowering.

So I listened to Herzog and asked myself: if a Jew comes near me and wants to hurt me, what should I do? Should I pick up the phone and call the Joint List or the Zionist Camp? Who would take better care of a poor Arab woman, Herzog or Odeh? I think I’ll just stick to Mace. It’s probably more effective.

He bashed Netanyahu for his election day scaremongering. “How is it acceptable,” Herzog asked, “that the prime minister of the Jewish state speaks this way about people, his own citizens, and discriminates against them because of their religion?” To the best of my knowledge, Netanyahu lashed into the Arabs because of their nationality, not their religion. Mr Herzog, if you’re going to lampoon Netanyahu for his racism, you’d better call a spade a spade.

The person who’s obsessed with religious war is Netanyahu himself, when he constantly cites the threat of radical Islam bearing upon Israel. It’s just a convenient distraction from the main issue – the ongoing occupation of the Palestinian people and the lack of a fair diplomatic solution to the conflict.

Herzog could have, and should have, addressed this issue from the Knesset podium. He could have later retracted, said one thing and do the other, made a pledge and never come back to it – anything. But for heaven’s sake, say something meaningful!

After the speech, someone wrote on Herzog’s Facebook wall: “If you had made this speech before the election you would be prime minister today!” And I asked myself: what was so special about this speech?

He scolded Netanyahu from the podium about the Gaza war. “You failed to translate the military gains into diplomatic ones,” he told the prime minister. What diplomatic gain was he suggesting, when in the same speech he said that the Palestinians are mostly to blame for the stalemate in the peace process? And of what use are his gloating warnings about Israel’s growing isolation, when he didn’t even mention the occupation, the settlements and everything leading to that isolation?

He will make do with “jumpstarting the process.” That’s all he wants – a semblance of progress.

And there he goes again, talking about the South, and the need for a decisive victory against the Palestinians who are now digging a new network of tunnels protruding into Israeli territory, on this government’s watch. How can he not say a word about the vicious and protracted siege on the Gaza Strip, which essentially fueled the conflict and led to the killing of thousands of innocent people? How can he not say that Israel locked them up and threw away the key? We all know that when the next round of fighting begins, he will describe it as “inevitable” and throw his weight behind the government.

If Herzog was prime minister, would he react differently? He might have taken more time for consultations and preparations, but at the end of the day he would strike the Palestinians again and again, to prove to his constituency that he too can do war. Herzog was sharp and pugnacious, but he hardly came across as a viable alternative. What can you expect from a candidate who labored to show that he is the greatest Zionist of all?

Of course, I see eye to eye with Herzog on issues such as housing, fighting poverty, employment, education and welfare. If he revisits his “minorities protection plan” in a way that actually takes minorities into account, only then will we be able to imagine a different future.

But Herzog didn’t seriously challenge the government, and he comfortably avoided taboo subjects such as peace, occupation, concessions, and most important – hope. And those are the words Israelis need to hear to wake them out of their coma, or, next time they’re startled by a Code Red rocket alert siren.

Samah Salaime Egbariya is a social worker, a director of AWC (Arab Women in the Center) in Lod/Lyd and a graduate of the Mandel Leadership Institute in Jerusalem. This article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call, where he/she is a blogger. Read it here.

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    1. Pedro X

      Herzog is the leader of the “Zionist Party”. As such he should advocate Zionist positions, such as Herzog did when he said:

      “There is a wide consensus in Israel that Jerusalem will not be divided or torn apart again.”

      Herzog must be a realist and cannot ignore the threat that Islamic extremism poses to Israel. Hope will not contain the Islamists who seek Israel’s destruction. Hamas’ Charter not only calls for Israel to be obliterated but also for a genocide against all Jews. Nor can he ignore the seculars in the PA who still think in terms of destruction of the Israeli state and its replacement with another Arab state. Given the recent history of the Arab spring turning into a series of mass massacres by Arabs against minorities you might forgive Herzog for not wanting to loose Arabs who hate Jews into Israel. Rabin and Peres already did that once in 1994 and it did not work out so well. They found out that hope was for dreamers.

      Herzog has to be realistic about the diplomatic process, he can not reach a solution to the conflict. No solution is possible due to Palestinian rejectionism and violence. Like Netanyahu, if he were in power, he could only manage the conflict. He would have to react to war initiated by Hamas in the same way Netanyahu did, cautiously and humanely. He too would feed the enemy population and give unprecedented warnings in the annals of warfare to Palestinians to abandon the urban battlefield and find shelter elsewhere. He would deploy the Israeli army to protect Israeli citizens just as Netanyahu did and as any Zionist leader would. Whether this new war will be short or long will depend on Hamas and Gazans. If Gazans wanted peace they would demilitarize the Gaza strip and plead for peace.

      The best thing Herzog could do is to join in an Unity government and help Netanyahu and Khalon achieve changes to help the average Israeli, which includes members of Israel’s minorities like Samah Salaime.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Joel Cantor

      “Sooner or later, Israel’s 34th government will join its predecessors in the dustbin of history.”

      Yes, alas that is the fate of all governments.

      But if they expand settlement in Yesha from 400,000 by an additional 50,000 people, that will sustain Israeli Sovereignty in those areas for all eternity.

      Reply to Comment
    3. Ben

      I haven’t heard any of you champions of enlightened Israeli western civilization clamoring for the censoring of Sluggofumblericketyrocketswedishchef’s offensive,raw, sexist, misogynist posts. He’s a great ambassador of the typical Israeli you think? You should police your own.

      Reply to Comment
      • Swedish Chef

        I see Brian,

        I defy you to explain how my comment is offensive, sexist, or mysogemistic. In fact, mysogemistic is a form of sexism so you don’t need both words. Check out TMZ or any article about any given female from birth Kardashian. This is what people want to hear.

        I also find it curious that on a website where you can routinely read comments about Holocaust denial, besmirching of the names of many good people for supporting Israel, called to kill Jews, calls to eliminateIsrael, nasty things about Judaism, denial of Jewish people, conspiracy involving the Rothchilds, conspiracies about Jews killing Kennedy, whitewashing of Arab terrorism, ad nauseam you choose to be offended by the word FUPA which I am sure you needed to look up on the Urban Dictionary. SMH

        Go give yourself a Blumpkin Brian

        Reply to Comment
        • Ben

          Well, you would say that wouldn’t you? (MRDA) You post offensive, puerile, off topic garbage here nonstop and this last post is no exception. And you’re absolutely shameless about it. Very antisocial. I’ve got nothing more to say to you. You add zero value. You’re a waste of time and space. If I were a right wing poster here I’d tell you to cut it out because as an ambassador for the Israeli right wing you’re a horror show.

          Reply to Comment
          • Swedish Chef

            Teaching moment:’ classic liberal. Believes he knows what is best for everyone and what is expected of them. And only his views are correct. He even knows what rightists should be doing. Whatever that means.

            As a hater of off-topic garbage, do you not even see the irony? Hello? Turd.

            By the way, you are no psycisict. Time and space are the same thing, so it is redundant to call me a waste of both. A waste of time or space.

            Reply to Comment
    4. David T.

      The Palestine Papers have shown that Israel is the real rejectionist of peace. And it also almost Israel alone that reignites violence after ceasefires so it can justify the occupation to continue the ongoing illegal colonialization of the West Bank.

      Even if Gazans would demilitarize Israel wouldn’t stop its illegal blockade or occupation, which is nothing else than violence against the Palestinians and the violation of their fundamental human rights. And it wouldn’t stop Israel’s illegal colonialization of the West Bank or reverse its illegal annexation of occupied Jerusalem.

      And even if the Arabs were Jew-loving angels, Israel would continue to commit all of these crimes and don’t allow Arabs to return which is itself an inhumane action against an ethnic group to maintain a regime dominated by another group which is blatant Apartheid as defined by international law.

      So the only thing Hasbarats can do is to claim that not the crimes against Palestinians (since 1948 and even before) including it’s inherent violence is the problem but that hatred against Jews (of course never the result of their crimes against Palestinians) is the main and only problem and that the Hamas Charter is more relevant to member of Hamas as to Israel propagandists.

      Btw., how hypocrit and bigot is is to condem Hama’s claim to historic Palestine as being extremist when Israel’s goverment does nothing less? And if Hamas calls for the “destruction” of Israel, is it going to be even worse than what Israel did to Palestine and the Palestinians since 1948?

      And what is your next smoke screen going to be?

      Reply to Comment