Isaac Herzog, son of a president and grandson of a chief rabbi, believes he has a chance to make some history of his own.
Last month, he won the leadership race to head the Labor Party, a once-indomitable political force that has shrunk in the wake of the two-decade failure of peace talks to a mere 15 Knesset seats (out of 120). The main party of government for Israel’s first three decades, and later at least a contender to rule the country, Labor is today just one more middling party among others, saddled with an ill-defined political agenda, uninspiring leadership and an unreliable voter base.
If he is to fulfill his ambition of bringing Labor to reclaim its historic role as Israel’s governing party, Herzog believes he must deliver a clear political message. His predecessor Shelly Yachimovich touted her socialism and got clobbered for it, losing the party leadership after bringing home a disappointing 15 seats in the national elections in January. Yachimovich’s predecessor Ehud Barak led the party into a Netanyahu-led government, giving him a place at the highest levels of decision making but costing Labor dearly by eliminating it as a credible contender to replace the Likud.
Those lessons weigh heavily on Herzog, as does the grim precedent of a party that consumes its leaders at an alarming pace. Labor has ousted 10 party leaders in just 21 years.
To secure his place at the helm and restore Labor’s place as an alternative to the ruling Likud, the party’s new leader is looking for that new agenda – in all the old places. He now seeks to return Labor to its old role as the party of peace talks.
On Sunday, Herzog took two close Labor allies for a meeting in Ramallah with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
There was no doubt as to the purpose of the meeting. It was touted by Herzog’s staff as the two leaders’ “first update meeting” – indicating we can expect more.
Herzog’s delegation included his closest ally, MK Erel Margalit, one of the few MKs who supported his bid for party leader this time – and the only one who supported it, albeit belatedly, in the last primary in 2011.
Herzog also brought with him MK Omer Bar-Lev, a noteworthy choice. Bar-Lev brings the defense credentials of a former commander of Israel’s most elite and secretive military unit, Sayeret Matkal. More than that, Bar-Lev, like Herzog, is heir to a famous political name. His father, Haim Bar-Lev, was an IDF chief of staff and cabinet minister.
“My impression was that we have a partner willing to go far to achieve peace, to take creative, brave steps on core issues,” Herzog said after the closed-door meeting.
His own message to Abbas, Herzog related, focused on Israel’s security, as befits any responsible Israeli leader: “I explained to Abu Mazen [Abbas] the need to reach fundamental arrangements related to security in order to ensure the shared future of our children, and to courageously seek an agreement fulfilling the vision of two states on the basis of territorial swaps.”
In his own statement following the meeting, Bar-Lev, too, emphasized security. “I explained [to Abbas] that from an Israeli viewpoint, we must first guarantee our security, so that the West Bank does not turn into Gaza,” Bar-Lev said in a reference to the rocket threat from the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.
“To my surprise,” Bar-Lev continued tantalizingly, “Abu Mazen didn’t try to avoid the issue, and presented his position with a frankness I have not yet heard from a leader in the Arab world. He asked not to publicize his comments, but said [his position] had been presented in the negotiations conducted [in 2008] with [former premier Ehud] Olmert, and I was led to understand also in the current negotiations.”
The “bottom line” for Bar-Lev was that “there is someone to talk to and plenty to talk about… And we must not forget, of course, that the issue at stake here is the future of Zionism.”
Herzog’s conclusion was similarly grand: “I repeated and emphasized to Abu Mazen, as I’d emphasized to [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu [in a meeting last week], that we have before us a historic opportunity for peace, and we must do all that we are able to see it through.”
The message underlying Herzog’s political theater, then, was specific and clear: A Herzog and a Bar-Lev – the aging colonel may be the closest Labor comes to the politician-generals of old – must lecture both the Palestinian leader and the Likud prime minister on the need for peace; there are hints at a softening of the other side’s stance; and Labor’s leaders will place Israel’s security as the first order of business in its contacts with Palestinians. Or in other words: this Labor party, like its pre-second intifada predecessor, the Labor party that could still win elections, can be trusted with the keys to the kingdom.
A rise in the polls?
In his bid to build a newly relevant party, Herzog can already point to some success. A recent Knesset Channel poll, taken after Herzog’s primary win, showed Labor rising from 15 seats to 19.
But a closer look at the numbers suggests the increase is far from indicative of a broad trend. While Labor rose to 19, Tzipi Livni’s dovish Hatnua dropped two seats to just four in the new poll, and the centrist Yesh Atid dropped nine, coming in at 10 seats. The left-wing Meretz was the biggest winner, as it has been in a bevy of recent polls, more than doubling from the six seats it holds currently to 13.
But what do these results mean for the left itself? It turns out, not much.
In the current Knesset, the dovish coalition of Hatnua, Yesh Atid, Meretz and Labor would contain an untenable minority of just 46 Knesset seats, and Labor would not lead that coalition. In the latest poll, that same alliance would control exactly the same number of seats – 46 – with the only difference being that Labor, not Yesh Atid, would be the coalition’s top dog.
That’s certainly a satisfying (albeit theoretical) development for Herzog personally, but it won’t win him the premiership.