Although Isaac Herzog claims to be a “security hawk”, he doesn’t seem to be campaigning as one. From my perch in the US, Herzog’s campaign appears as if Labor’s silent partner is no less than the president of the US himself, Barack H. Obama. Apparently the Israeli public agrees. The majority of Israelis not only mistrust Obama but also feel that he is interfering in the Israeli electoral process. And Herzog is dropping in the polls. Meanwhile, all center parties and Shas are hedging their bets. What first promised to be an “anybody-but-Bibi campaign” has now turned into an anti-soft-leftwing — “they can’t handle Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas” — Labor Party nightmare.
It didn’t have to be this way. Labor should have attacked Obama’s lack of a clear and sustainable Middle East policy with a strength and vitality that has never seemed to materialize. But it’s still not too late. Herzog must go to Washington and spell out a tough position on the Iran nuclear deal and its direct link to Syria, Lebanon and Iraq. Herzog must look the Washington Democratic Party establishment directly in the eye and tell them that Israel and the Sunni states perceive an American tilt toward Iran, and that such a tilt is simply not acceptable. If Herzog were smart, he would accompany Netanyahu to Congress as a show of national unity. At least that’s what a true “security hawk” would do. But from here in the states, Herzog appears weak on Obama and Iran, and his little trip to Munich last week to meet Joe Biden didn’t help with his perception problem at all.
Obama has been a disaster for all his allies in the Middle East, and it certainly is not just an Israeli problem. The revolt of the Sunni masses in Egypt and the Levant was met with an ill-conceived acceptance of Muslim Brotherhood followed by an outright rejection of the liberal, nonviolent, democratic revolution in Syria. Martin Luther King must have been turning in his grave as Obama vacillated in the face of the most promising of all the Arab Spring movements, the original peaceful marches in Syria to topple the dictator, Assad. But his turning of a blind eye toward Hezbollah and Iran’s regional ambitions has become the most grievous of all Obama’s mistakes.
Obama is not a strategic thinker. He reduces complex situations into compartments. He perceives Iran’s nuclear program not as an important part of a greater regional whole, but rather as an isolated problem that can be managed without regard to the larger consequences. Israeli leadership cannot afford to think this way. As I write this very column, Iranian-backed forces are attacking rebel positions within earshot of the Israeli border with Syria. This is not a war game, but the real thing. Iran is not an American partner in the Middle East; Israel is. At least that’s the way the vast majority of the American people perceive Israel. Either Obama doesn’t care about Israel, or he’s the most naïve president since Jimmy Carter (perhaps he’s both). Either way, for Herzog to be taking such a soft stance vis-a-vis Obama and Iran only cements the idea of Labor Party weakness within the conceptual framework of the Israeli voting public.
If Herzog were a real “security hawk”, he’d be criticizing Obama’s policies to the fullest. Someone needs to level with the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. A pro-Iranian policy is not only a definite 2016 presidential loser but also un-American and wrong-headed. Who better to do just such a thing than the Israeli Labor Party leader? But instead Herzog plays politics. Sure, Bibi plays the same game, but at least the Prime Minister has the security credentials to be believable. With Iran on Israel’s border, the whole question of whether or not Obama should’ve been advised of Netanyahu’s Congressional speech becomes irrelevant. The Iranian tiger is at the gate, and Obama is about to sign a nuclear deal with it. Remember, once the sanctions are lifted, Iran will become stronger, not weaker. Herzog needs to act, and he needs to act fast.
But Bibi holds the high cards. With the Hezbollah-Iran offensive on or near the Golan Heights, the prime minister could easily manipulate the situation to his advantage. It would be in Israel’s strategic interest for him to do so. Sooner or later, Iran must be rolled back from Syria. Israel must decide now, however, whether or not the rollback should begin immediately on the Syrian Golan Heights. It would certainly play well with Obama’s many detractors in Washington. Iran’s nuclear danger to Israel is not solely about actual nuclear weapons. It is more about the perception of Iran’s breakout capability and that capability’s effect on the actual conventional situation on the ground in both Lebanon and Syria. This is the situation that matters the most. Israel’s conventional deterrent action cannot, and must not, be held hostage to a bad nuclear deal between Washington and Tehran.
Either through strong military action or a tough national unity approach (or both), Obama must be made aware that Iran’s total geo-strategic role within the region is a matter of Israeli national interest. Herzog and company must stop thinking about the election and start acting as a significant junior partner in a national unity government. Herzog’s chances of forming his own government have been lost due to his perceived closeness to an American president with the most Israel-neutral Middle East policy since the Eisenhower years. To save himself and his party’s future, Herzog must start acting like Rabin, Dayan and Barak (the defense minister). In order to achieve success in future elections, Labor needs to become the true security party of the Israeli Center, the sooner the better.
Bibi needs Labor now as much as Labor needs Bibi. Likud needs Herzog to nationalize its approach toward Iran, while Labor needs security credibility for future electoral success through economics and potential peacemaking. Only by teaming up with Likud now can Herzog hope to establish himself as a security hawk on Iran; yet as the Labor Party leader he could still be his own man, while on the inside gaining both experience and vision. In the future, his party will need a whole new security strategy that would allow it to draw votes away from Likud, Shas and Koolanu. His current tepid approach to Iran is hardly an approach at all. If Labor is to have a future with the Israeli electorate, it will be as the true party of the working classes. But when it comes to the working classes, they simply don’t trust the old elites on issues of security.
For that matter, the situation in Israel has never been about economics alone. On the contrary, it has mostly been about a small country surrounded by a Muslim world hell-bent on its destruction. Herzog needs a group of rabbis with a theological narrative that has an inter-faith message. This message should counter political Islam’s rejection of the historical Jewish-Zionist project. All of Islam must begin to see Israel as a Jewish state which is not alien to the region but is, instead, a force for good (religious and otherwise). Labor needs an entirely fresh narrative that appeals not only to economic equality, but also to a Jewish-Islamic partnership and a strong commitment to regional stability and balance.
It is within this total regional context that the issue of Palestine should be addressed, and must be addressed. Labor has a crucial role to play in Israel’s next government, if only to explain to Obama how wrong his policies have been on Iran and the compartmentalization of the Middle East. Labor has a future as a strong voice for Jewish and Muslim ethics in the marketplace of a positive future economic reality and eventual peace. But for that to happen, the region must first be stabilized, and at least some kind of vision for its future secured through a proposed international framework. However, if there are to be empires (like Iran) within the Muslim Middle East, and if the current US administration accepts such a development, then it must be the Israeli Labor Party which sounds the alarm the loudest.