Rival MK Margalit launches apparent bid to oust opposition leader

Under fire, Herzog doubles down on comments disavowing Arabs

Opposition leader takes flak, including from some in his own party, after saying Labor should shed left-wing image

Raoul Wootliff is a former Times of Israel political correspondent and Daily Briefing podcast producer.

Isaac Herzog leads a Zionist Union faction meeting in the Knesset on February 22, 2016. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Isaac Herzog leads a Zionist Union faction meeting in the Knesset on February 22, 2016. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Opposition leader Isaac Herzog doubled down Wednesday on a controversial statement the day before saying that to win over more of the Israeli public his Labor Party had to stop giving the impression that “we are always Arab-lovers.”

Responding to a barrage of criticism from both within Labor and across the political spectrum, Herzog suggested on Twitter Wednesday morning that anyone unhappy with his statements should consider leaving the party.

“I have heard that there are some who are unhappy with my Zionist approach. If they want the chair of the Zionist Union to prefer the interests of the Palestinians, I have a message for them: Go and find a new path,” he wrote.

His party, said Herzog later Wednesday, “will not favor the Palestinians (over Israel) in grappling with the conflict.”

(Labor is the larger of the two parties — the second is Hatnua — that make up the Zionist Union faction in the Knesset.)

On Tuesday night, Herzog had said: “I mean, we’re not going to become right-wingers… But how can we find our way into the hearts of members of the public? How can we convince them that we have not only the experience, but also the the ability, to improve Israel’s situation, without compromising Israel’s security, heaven forbid, and without giving the impression — and I encounter this at meetings time and time again with the Israeli public — that we are always ‘Arab-lovers’?”

Is Herzog’s comment “an appropriate response for the head of the opposition to a demonstration by the radical right?” tweeted Labor MK Shelly Yachimovich. She was referring to a Tel Aviv rally Tuesday night in support of IDF soldier Elor Azaria, who has been charged with manslaughter for shooting dead a disarmed and incapacitated Palestinian attacker in Hebron last month.

On Wednesday she tweeted a photo of the Declaration of Independence, highlighting the section calling for equal rights for all citizens, regardless of religion, race or gender.

Zionist Union MK Zouheir Bahloul, who himself stirred controversy earlier this month for declaring that Palestinian attackers who target soldiers and army positions were not terrorists, demanded an apology from Herzog for his remarks in the name of the Israeli Arab community.

Zouheir Bahloul (AFP Photo/Ahmad Gharabli)
Zouheir Bahloul (AFP Photo/Ahmad Gharabli)

“To dismiss 20 percent of the citizenry in such a callous way, to disguise oneself as ‘right-wing,’ flirting with those who fill up the city squares, to get stressed about every poll — that’s not how you present an alternative to the ruling government,” Bahloul said Wednesday, adding: “I condemn Herzog’s statement and demand an apology on behalf of the Israeli Arab community.”

Responding to Herzog’s tweet suggesting that critics should consider leaving the party, Bahloul told Army Radio that he had no such plans and would continue to represent the Arab Israeli public from within the party.

MK Ayman Odeh, the leader of the Joint (Arab) List, said the comments prove that Herzog cannot lead a center-left opposition against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government.

“Herzog is neither relevant nor a leader, and should have resigned as the head of the opposition a long time ago,” he said in a statement Wednesday. “Herzog has turned himself into a a cheap and pale impersonation of Netanyahu. Specifically during these hard days, we need to present a real and bold alternative to Netanyahu and the right’s rule of hate.”

The comments also received criticism from the right, with Education Minister Naftali Bennett (Jewish Home) tweeting that the Arab-Israeli population make up 20 percent of the country’s citizens and that “we do not hate them.”

Herzog has been leader of Labor since 2013. He led the party to defeat at the hands of Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud in Israel’s last general elections in March 2015. On election day, Netanyahu galvanized his supporters by claiming that Israel’s Arab minority were “streaming to the polls.”

In an apparent bid to replace Herzog as party leader, Knesset member Erel Margalit released a video on Tuesday calling for the right wing to “give us back our country” and saying that the Labor party needed to reassess its own direction.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WOLaWgIGX90

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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