The first step is to replace party leader Isaac Herzog, who has adopted the prime minister’s approach to the Palestinians and was willing to join his government.
By Nathan Hersh and Abe Silberstein
When Netanyahu abandoned the possibility of forming a coalition with Zionist Union by appointing Avigdor Liberman as defense minister, many on the Israeli center-left, including Labor chairman Isaac Herzog and liberal columnist Ari Shavit, were quick to self-flagellate. The truth is there was no missed opportunity, unless one is speaking of the chance to commit political suicide by linking up with a prime minister who had no intention of moderating his policies.
Herzog, whose days as head of the party are surely limited, will suffer the most from this turn of events. While his performance during the last election did much to bring the Labor party back to relevance, his leadership since then has backtracked on much of the progress made.
Since 2001, Labor party leaders have done little to confront the security narrative of the ruling Likud party and its partners. Indeed, as Edo Konrad wrote in these pages in February, it was Labor prime minister Ehud Barak’s team who, by pushing the dubious storyline of “no partner,” planted the seeds for the enfeebling of the peace camp. Subsequent Labor leaders have either offered unilateral alternatives to bilateral talks or attempted to shift the political agenda, always unsuccessfully, to kitchen table issues.
Still, Herzog’s January address to a Tel Aviv think tank — in which he adopted Benjamin Netanyahu’s approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, saying that peace is impossible at the moment, and calling for the completion of the security barrier around the settlement blocs — represented a particularly upsetting low.
If there was ever a time for the center-left to truly expose the Right’s absurd notion of security, it is now that one of the least experienced defense ministers in Israeli history assumes office. Liberman is taking the helm at the Defense Ministry just when the government’s rift with the defense establishment is at its widest, and his positions on some of the most divisive issues contributing to that rift will certainly not advance any reconciliation. Several former leaders in the defense establishment have been vocally critical of this government’s West Bank policies recently, and Netanyahu’s choice of Liberman can be read as a decision to double down on his position.
One of the Right’s most common arguments against the evacuation of West Bank settlements is the idea that they protect Israel. This is not just an example of empty political pandering, it is also a dangerous and backward suggestion: civilian communities over the Green Line are most exposed to terror attacks; the porousness of the border to accommodate settlers’ travel between Israel and the West Bank is a threat in itself; and the most extreme settlers, emboldened by the government, often instigate violence against Palestinians. This is to say nothing of the duplicitous avoidance of final status negotiations at all costs, most recently evidenced by the government’s lonely opposition to the French peace initiative.
Unfortunately, Herzog tried to sell Netanyahu’s creeping annexation as his own, apparently without realizing that much of his own constituency does not envision annexation as a desirable endpoint. This approach — reaching into Netanyahu’s “pragmatic” center-right base — was the most pathetic attempt to achieve wider popularity in recent memory.
The political goal of the center-left should be to bolster alternatives to the prime minister, not emulate him. As Likud becomes increasingly populated by the most ideological of rightists, only the center-left will be able to provide an alternative to Netanyahu, one that can attract the centrist support necessary to build a coalition. To this end, there are three processes the next leader of the Labor Party should set in motion immediately.
First, begin talks with the left-wing Meretz party to create a single center-left list for the next election. This was an idea floated last year by Uri Avnery and should be seriously revisited given the current balance of political forces in Israel. A center-left list holding between 20 and 25 Knesset seats would be in a strong position to set the agenda of a centrist coalition. This is an eminently achievable goal.
Next, build relationships with political and diplomatic figures overseas. The recent saga of Herzog chasing fig leaf status contains one positive element: the Labor leadership was engaged in a complex effort that involved former Quartet representative Tony Blair and Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi. Cultivating these relationships among the opposition will not only make a center-left list the most attractive choice for a coalition partner, it will also send a signal to those international partners that the era of “managing the conflict” ends with Netanyahu, and that a serious effort toward a two-state solution is worth investing time in.
Finally, the next Labor head must advocate for leaders in the defense establishment to determine the best course for security, and speak against the heavy-handedness of Netanyahu’s leadership. He or she must work toward ending the rift between the political establishment and the military by earning the defense establishment’s support early on. It is clear that Netanyahu’s approach to national security is different from that of many military and intelligence leaders; unless Labor can prove that own its national security goals are in sync with those of leaders in the field, Netanyahu will continue to maintain a monopoly over security in the eyes of the electorate.
New leadership and blood at the top of the opposition offers an opportunity to redefine the center-left’s place in Israeli politics. Just as Herzog was able to reverse the fortunes of a Labor party after two underwhelming election results, so too can new leadership revitalize the party now. It will be the task of Labor’s next leader to chart a different path. Whoever the next Labor leader is, he or she must challenge the current government’s position on the future of the territories.
Nathan Hersh served in a combat unit of the IDF from 2009 to 2011 and has an MA in Conflict Resolution from Tel Aviv University. Abe Silberstein writes on Israeli politics and US-Israel relations from New York.