J.J. Goldberg

A Tough Slog Facing New Israeli Opposition Leader

By J.J. Goldberg

  • Print
  • Share Share

To understand why Shelly Yachimovich was booted out as head of the Israel Labor Party after just two years on the job, it helps to note that Labor has had a bad habit, ever since Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination in 1995, of changing leaders every time it holds a primary.

But this time was different. Previous primaries were held after a general election, and leaders were dumped because they’d lost. Yachimovich, by contrast, did fairly well in the 2013 Knesset elections. She nearly doubled the party’s Knesset share, from eight seats to 15. What she lost was the trust — indeed, the patience — of her colleagues and the party membership. This time it wasn’t about Labor, but about Yachimovich. Virtually every senior figure in the party complained bitterly of her high-handedness, her inability to work in a team, her refusal to share decision-making. The poison finally filtered down to the rank and file.

Labor’s new leader, Isaac “Buzhi” Herzog, steps into an unusual situation. He’s well liked by his colleagues and popular among the members in the party branches. He was effective as a government minister, particularly in his 2007-11 stint heading welfare and social services. As the son of ex-president Chaim Herzog, grandson of longtime chief rabbi (and namesake) Yitzhak Herzog and nephew of Abba Eban, he has a Kennedy-like aura of aristocracy, something like what Likud “princes” Bibi Netanyahu, Dan Meridor, Benny Begin, Tzipi Livni and Ehud Olmert all had. Unlike Likud, Labor has never chosen a “prince” before.

And, in stark contrast to Yachimovich, those who know Buzhi agree that he’s a genuinely nice guy, a rarity in Israeli politics. The question is whether he has it in him to capture the public’s trust as the leader of the troubled, threatened nation.

It says a great deal about Yachimovich that party leaders who were unseated used to stay on as members of the leadership team, but in Yachimovich’s case, four of her predecessors have left the party. True, two of them, Ehud Barak and Shimon Peres, had left well before she took over in September 2011 because they’d tired of languishing in the opposition. But two others, Amram Mitzna and Amir Peretz, party veterans who had stayed on through numerous leadership changes, left after Yachimovich took over. Both are now senior figures in Tzipi Livni’s party, Hatnuah. Peretz had been Yachimovich’s political mentor. He felt she’d driven him out of the party.

When Yachimovich failed to bring the party into second place in last January’s elections, losing out to Yair Lapid, three candidates emerged from the Knesset caucus to challenge her—Herzog, venture capital whiz Erel Margalit and longtime party insider Eitan Cabel. In the end, Margalit and Cabel decided to unite behind Herzog, an indication of his strength and credibility as a veteran leader.

But he’s never established himself clearly as a powerhouse leader in the public eye. He’s always carried himself as a faithful number 2. The question now is whether he can transcend his new role as party healer and emerge as a national leader.

Compounding this challenge, he takes over in a daunting situation for any leader of Israeli center-left. Labor’s natural constituency is divided among four different center-left parties, all with nearly identical platforms of secularism, economic fairness and strong support for a two-state peace agreement: Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid, Livni’s Hatnuah, Shaul Mofaz’s Kadima and Labor itself.

Together, those parties hold 42 seats in the 120-member Knesset, versus 31 held by the Likud-Beiteinu bloc of Benjamin Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman. Counting smaller satellite parties, the right’s electoral support is reflected in the 31 seats of Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu plus the 12 seats of Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home—total 43 seats—while the left/peace-oriented bloc’s strength consists of the 41 seats of Labor-Yesh Atid-Hatnuah-Kadima plus the six of Meretz, for a total of 47. If you throw in the 11 seats of the Arab-backed parties, it’s 58.

Considering the leanings of the rest of the Knesset, it’s safe to say that if Bibi decided to freeze settlement construction and declare an end-game based on the pre-1967 lines with land swaps, he could probably reach an agreement with the PLO that could easily pass the Knesset. But it would have to get through the Cabinet first, and that doesn’t seem likely. The 45-odd Knesset members who oppose such a deal are a minority of the Knesset but dominate the current governing coalition. Besides, it’s entirely unclear that Bibi himself is willing to go there. And that’s the only way to get to Yes and end the conflict, whatever Bibi says he’s aiming for.

Could Buzhi do it? He’s willing. But is he the guy who can win the voters’ trust, unite the parties of the center-left and move the ball into the end zone? We’ve never really had a chance to see what he’s made of. We’ll find out soon.

Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Yitzhak Rabin, Yitzhak Herzog, Yisrael Beiteinu, Yesh Atid, Yair Lapid, Tzipi Livni, Shimon Peres, Shelly Yachimovich, Shaul Mofaz, Naftali Bennett, Meretz, Likud-Beiteinu, Knesset, Kadima, Jewish Home, Isaac Herzog, Hatnuah, Erel Margalit, Eitan Cabel, Ehud Olmert, Dan Meridor, Chaim Herzog, Buzhi, Bibi, Avigdor Lieberman, Benny Begin, Benjamin Netanyahu, Amram Mitzna, Amir Peretz, Abba Eban

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • "Everybody is proud of the resistance. No matter how many people, including myself, disapprove of or even hate Hamas and its ideology, every single person in Gaza is proud of the resistance." Part 2 of Walid Abuzaid's on-the-ground account of life in #Gaza:
  • After years in storage, Toronto’s iconic red-and-white "Sam the Record Man" sign, complete with spinning discs, will return to public view near its original downtown perch. The sign came to symbolize one of Canada’s most storied and successful Jewish family businesses.
  • Is $4,000 too much to ask for a non-member to be buried in a synagogue cemetery?
  • "Let’s not fall into the simplistic us/them dichotomy of 'we were just minding our business when they started firing rockets at us.' We were not just minding our business. We were building settlements, manning checkpoints, and filling jails." What do you think?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.