Isaac Herzog: The Man With Small Answers

AP Photo/Ariel Schalit

Israeli leader of the center-left Zionist Union Isaac Herzog speaks with Israeli voters persuading them to vote for him in the upcoming Israeli elections in his party headquarters in Tel Aviv, Israel, Monday, March 16, 2015 a day ahead of legislative elections. 

Isaac Herzog, the nominal and ineffectual leader of the Israeli opposition, has found what he believes to be a platform for challenging Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu: despair of reaching a two-state agreement in the foreseeable future.

The main lesson of this exercise is that despair is not an inspiring political message. But then, Herzog has never been accused of being an inspiring politician. Despair does not provide a reason to act; it is an excuse for failing to do so. The danger of Herzog's despair isn't just that it will provide the current Israeli government with one more PR argument for inaction, but that it will also fuel the sense in other capitals that there's nothing to be done about the Israeli-Palestinian problem and therefore no reason to try.

Herzog does have reason to feel desperate. A year ago, running against a prime minister bereft of accomplishments, Herzog managed to lose. Netanyahu's Likud won 30 out of 120 seats in parliament. The Zionist Union, an alliance of Herzog's Labor Party and another center-left party, won 24. A poll published last weekend showed the Zionist Union getting just 15 seats if elections were to be held today. With all due caveats about polls, this one gives a fair picture of Herzog's fade-out.

His brilliant idea for rescuing himself and the nation is triangulation, in the worst sense of the word: move to the center and accept key assumptions of his opponents. Sadly, this is not a shock. When I've spoken to Herzog over the years, I've found that for every big question he has a small answer. Labor chose him in one of its periodic self-destructive bouts of returning power to the gray-spirited apparatchiks. For people watching Israel from abroad, he serves as a reminder that in other countries’ politics, as in your own, voters are not just choosing between ideologies. The candidates, and the mistakes of party machines and primary voters, may matter more.

Herzog's program, presented in its most detailed form at a think-tank conference, rests on three principles: First, much as he insists he still believes in a two-state agreement, it's out of reach because neither Netanyahu nor Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas have the requisite “leadership, strength, or courage.” Second, to keep the option open for some unknown time, Israel should unilaterally separate itself as much as possible from the Palestinians of the West Bank, based on the principle, “They're there and we're here.” Third, to implement that policy, it should complete its security wall in the West Bank—and build a wall in Jerusalem slicing off outlying Palestinian parts of town. The urban core of Arab East Jerusalem would remain on the Israeli side of the divider.

Herzog claims this is “brutally realistic.” It's nothing of the sort. But the plan is useful for understanding the conceptual flaws in fashionable hopelessness about a two-state outcome, and for clarifying what's wrong with the Israeli center.

Let's start with Herzog's assertion that “with Netanyahu there will be no progress” toward an agreement. That's true. But Herzog's job description isn't analyst or pundit. He's the leader of the opposition in a parliamentary system that allows for elections at any time. He's supposed to lay out what he'd do differently the day he replaces Netanyahu. Yet a key justification he offers for his program is that Netanyahu is in power and won't make peace.

Herzog also asserts that Abbas isn't willing or able to make peace. Let's examine this: As president, Abbas's central political goal has been reaching a two-state agreement, and the means he has chosen is diplomacy—via negotiations with Israel or by seeking international pressure on Israel.

It's also true that Abbas's legitimacy is in decline, along with support among Palestinians for a two-state outcome and belief that it can be achieved. Surveys say that if elections were held today in the West Bank and Gaza, Abbas would lose to a Hamas candidate.

Israel doesn't hold sole responsibility for making peace. Even with much better leadership, Israel would face the dilemma of needing a peace agreement but not being able to agree to what Palestinians consider obvious conditions.

But what Herzog ignores—what the chatter of the Israeli center and right generally ignores—is the impact of Israeli actions on Palestinian politics. They know that Palestinian actions influence Israeli opinion—for instance, that the bombings of the Second Intifada made Israelis more skeptical about the chances of making peace. Somehow the converse is less obvious: that Israeli policy is a central factor in Palestinian opinion. (So it is in most places in the world: How could they possibly dislike us for what we've done?) “There is an intrinsic relationship between Israeli policy and the strength and credibility of the Palestinian leadership,” stresses Mouin Rabbani, an Amman-based senior fellow at the Institute for Palestine Studies. “If we look at why the formal Palestinian leadership is today so disempowered and weak, of course there are all sorts of internal reasons. … But far and away, the most important reason is that they haven't been able to deliver” on Palestinian independence.

The continuing growth of settlements and Netanyahu's demonstrated disinterest in ending the occupation have not added to Abbas's popularity or to trust in his strategy. They do not increase the chance that his successor will be equally interested in a diplomatic outcome.

For that matter, Palestinian confidence that a two-state agreement is possible will not be boosted when the moderate alternative to Netanyahu demands completion of the West Bank fence that puts major settlement blocs on the Israeli side. Presenting his plan, Herzog asserted that those settlements “will be under Israeli sovereignty under the final-status solution” to the conflict. The leader of the major opposition party believes that he can dictate the borders that Palestinians must accept—and does not seem to think this has any impact on a Palestinian leader's ability to negotiate with public support.

Herzog's plan for Jerusalem is where his self-described realism becomes complete fantasy. It reveals him as a Tel Aviv politician with no practical knowledge of Jerusalem.

“They're there and we're here” superficially makes sense in Tel Aviv, an overwhelmingly Jewish city, facing the Mediterranean, where Israelis can convince themselves that they're practically part of Europe. Though it explicitly refers to Palestinians, “Let them be there and us be here” also expresses how much of Labor's secular base relates to large parts of Israel's own society: the Orthodox; the Jews whose roots are in the Middle East rather than Europe; everyone who's not Tel Aviv. This attitude continues to be Labor's greatest political liability.

Jerusalem, on the other hand, is the last space where large numbers of Palestinians and Israeli Jews meet daily. In recent months, quite a few of those meetings—but a tiny portion of the total—have involved bloodshed. Nevertheless, the Jerusalem reality of “we're here and they are too” creates a better chance of seeing each other as people and not just “them.” Herzog's proposal would impose a concrete border without negotiations. It would tear the city in two, and destroy the economies of both sides.

A hopeful plan for Jerusalem is dividing sovereignty between Israel and the Palestinian state while keeping the city physically open so that people can meet—at last as equals. This should be the model for a two-state arrangement as a whole: separate sovereignty, open borders.

Herzog's triangulation has more than local impact. It will feed the growing despair, or cynicism, elsewhere in the world about the prospects for Israeli-Palestinian peace. Despair is particularly contagious because it absolves people of any obligation to act, to create change. But it's a mistake.

On the Israeli political scene, there's no reason to expect Herzog to last. Labor is quick to depose failed leaders. At the moment, this is a positive quality. Herzog's miserable poll results will be an inducement to action.

Rather than listen to Herzog and give up, policymakers in European capitals and especially in Washington should take note of that reflexive response and learn from it. The lesson is that when you give up, you encourage others to do so. The best answer to despair is to re-engage. 

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