Although Israel and Hamas have recently agreed to a cease-fire, the debate within Israel over how to prevent future eruptions of violence and preserve Israeli security and the viability of the two-state solution has only just begun. On September 9, 2014, the Center for Middle East Policy hosted Isaac Herzog, member of the Knesset, chairman of Israel’s Labor Party, and leader of the opposition, to discuss Israeli politics and society and the future of Israeli-Palestinian relations. CMEP Director Tamara Cofman Wittes welcomed Herzog and moderated the conversation.
Herzog explained that the recent conflict with Hamas has left Israel in a “post-traumatic state.” He noted that Israeli public opinion has shifted to the right in the conflict’s wake, adding that while he may not welcome such a political shift, he recognizes that it is “totally provisional, logical, and to be expected” given the “long period of national pain” Israel has recently endured.
Herzog spoke about the “unique” phenomena he observed during the Gaza operation: the emergence of a clear Israeli consensus on the military objectives; rising public demands to protect Israelis living near the southern border; and the massive public attendance at the funeral of a U.S.-born Israeli soldier killed in the fighting. He argued that Israelis were developing a “new reality” — a growing understanding that Israel can work with regional partners such as Jordan, Egypt, and the Palestinian Authority in addressing common concerns.
Herzog advocated that Gaza “open its gates” and bring back civilian management by Mahmoud Abbas’s Palestinian Authority. He argued that Abbas should seek international financing to rebuild Gaza, suggesting that this would weaken Hamas’s hold in Gaza and move it toward greater political responsibility.
One of Herzog’s key themes was the need for Israeli political leaders to be proactive and seize the opportunity to create a lasting Israeli-Palestinian peace. He criticized Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for failing to show “vision” for Israel’s next steps.
Herzog also emphasized Israel’s identity as a diverse, multicultural, multi-faceted society. He acknowledged the recent controversy over remarks by Knesset member Hanin Zoabi, who suggested that the kidnappers of three Israeli teenagers in June 2014 were not terrorists. Herzog declared that “there is no limitation of free speech in Israel” and asserted that Israeli leaders must protect the right of all Israeli voices to be heard, as long as they do not violate the law. He also argued that Jewish-Arab relations in Israel are not as conflictual as commonly portrayed.
Much of the discussion focused on the U.S.-Israel relationship and Israeli efforts to strengthen economic ties with Russia, China, and India. Herzog insisted that there “cannot and will not” be any change in the centrality and uniqueness of the U.S.-Israel relationship and reaffirmed Israel’s gratitude for American support. Nevertheless, Herzog explained that Israel has interests in expanding its export markets and building strong commercial ties to Asia. He reiterated that these new commercial partnerships will not change Israel’s relationship with the United States, with which Israel has “intimate shared values.”
On Iran, Herzog stated that the nuclear issue remains very important, and while Israel recognizes the need to address more immediate issues such as the “Genghis Khans coming from the East, beheading people” on the world stage (a reference to the group known as the Islamic State, or ISIS), the Iranian nuclear issue is a “stand-alone issue” that must be dealt with.
On the issue of the recent land appropriation announcement, Herzog criticized the move but raised the question of why it did not provoke more vocal criticism within Israel. His explanation was that “legally and technically,” the move was not a step toward settlement construction. Speaking about politics, he explained that “[the opposition’s] role is to replace the government. That is what we do.” He said he would like to lead a coalition of centrist parties that is both “serious enough” to protect Israeli security and proactive on promoting peace and social justice.