"Israel cannot build new settlements"

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Even after the elections Yitzhak "Buji" Herzog needs nerves made from steel. The 54 year old leader of the Israeli Labour party teamed up with Tzipi Livini from "HaTnuah", a small centrist pro-peace party, to form the "Zionist Union" for the Israeli parliamentary elections on March 17. Together they won 24 seats. Herzog was one of the winners of these elections. But the narrow-shouldered bespectacled politician speaks with a squeaky voice - which he even made fun of himself by dubbing his own campaign ad with a deep voice over. Did he seem too intellectual for a country obsessed with security or did Israel simply like the right wing statements of the blustering Benjamin Netanyahu more? The Likud boss won over his contender by securing 30 seats and will probably form a coalition even more right wing than his previous one.

Yitzhak Herzog's family is part of Israel's founding aristocracy: His father Chaim was president of Israel, his uncle Abbu Eban foreign minister and his grandfather Yitzhak was one of the first chief rabbis of Israel after he emigrated from Ireland to Palestine in 1935. Herzog himself is a lawyer and politician. He served in several governments, his to date last ministerial post was the social and welfare ministry under Netanyahu till 2011. His childish nickname was given to him by his francophone mother, it is a mixture of the French "Joujou" ("toy") and the Hebrew "Bubu" ("doll"). To the chagrin of his spin doctors the nickname stuck with him till today. Among his comrades-in-arms in the "Zionist Union" are some who seem to negotiate behind his back with Netanyahu. They would rather join a coalition than go in opposition.

Profil: Is your „No“ to join a Netanyahu lead coalition final?

Herzog: What I had to say to this subject I said in a message on my Facebook page: We are going to the opposition. And we will be a strong opposition. I got large support from the Israeli public. 800.000 Israelis voted for us. A record vote. With this I have a strong mandate to be a tough, fierce and strong opposition leader.

Profil: If Likud would agree to leave the extremist parties „The Jewish Home“ and „Our home Israel“ out of government, agree to a Two-State solution and make you foreign minister – would it then not be a question of national importance to join the government and block people like settler leader Naftali Bennett to continue his racist policies?

Herzog: There is no offer of that kind from Netanyahu.

Profil: Under Netanyahu’s last government Israel got the reputation to move in the direction of an apartheid state. If Netanyahu offers you a serious deal, you could help better Israel’s image in the world. Would that not be important?

Herzog: Netanyahu has lead us to a deadlock with our neighbours. He destroyed all relations with our neighbours and most important partners abroad. He also failed dramatically with the social issues. We made it clear we have a different alternative.

Profil: What would you do differently in foreign policy?

Herzog: With respect to the Palestinians there is total deadlock now. We must reignite the process. And strenghen our ties with the United States again.

Profil: The Palestinians recenctly joined the International Criminal Court (ICC) on April 1st. Do you think this is good or bad for world peace?

Herzog: I think it is terrible, it does not serve any purpose. This move will only lead to confrontation. The Palestinians should should sit down with us Israelis and negotiate. I will do everything I can to push for this. But it is a mistake of the Palestinian leadership to take unilateral actions like this.

Profil: The Palestinians were granted observer status at the UN in 2012 and joined 40 international treaties and conventions since. It is a non-violent way of struggling against the Israeli occupation. Is this not better than a third intifada?

Herzog: The world needs to recognize that unilateral action is an excuse for people who do not want to negotiate.

Profil: Your party in government would have calmed the European governments and the American administration. But no left government has ever made peace with the Palestinians – on the contrary, settlements have been build under Labour at least as fast as under Likud. Are you really so different from Netanyahu, when it comes to the peace process?

Herzog: I will freeze construction in the settlements which lie outside of the three settlements blocks in the Westbank. These three settlement blocks are earmarked for staying with Israel after a peace settlement as foreseen in the Clinton parameters in the year 2000. We will swap this land for other land with the Palestinians. We can discuss the details in negotiations, but one thing is clear: Israel cannot build new settlements.

Profil: It seems that there is no majority for this view in Israel.

Herzog: I don’t agree with this view. The right wing camp has lost, they have now three mandates less in total. Netanyahu swallowed voters from the extreme right. This gave him the edge.

Profil: But there are only two parties – the small left Meretz-Party and the Zionist Union – which still call for a Two-state solution. You have together only 29 of 120 seats in the Israeli Parliament.

Herzog: This is absolutely not true. Don’t forget the centrist parties like „There is a future“. Yair Lapid is clearly for it. The centrist parties might just not be willing to fight for it. But they will for sure agree to it, if they are being presented with a clear plan. I would have fought for it and presented a clear plan.

Profil: Instead of an open and moderate government Israel will get an even more right wing government. Netanyahu also wants to bring the ultra religious parties back to government. One of the few successes of his last government was a law which forces religious students to go to the army. Will the ultra orthodox parties not try to reverse this conscription law?

Herzog: No, they want to change only the penalty part of it, not the principle. The law for the conscription will stay. I am sure of it, there is no way back.

Profil: Your Labour party campaigned for socially more just Israel. But will anyone be able to change Israel back to the old kibbutz oriented society? There is now a thriving middle and upper class of high tech millionaires and a caste of oligarch families. Can they be reigned in?

Herzog: There are so many ways to do this. A combination of allowances for socially weak and other efforts to build a better society. We need to redistribute our wealth away from the settlements to the development towns in Israel. I think we have a national consensus to close the gap between rich and poor and we need to strenghen our belief in being a society that takes care of the weaker parts, too. We will deal with housing and cost of living. We will close the social gap. The young generation especially gave us enormous support for this.

Profil: Iran and the international community agreed on a framework nuclear deal on April 2nd. Netanyahu says it is a mistake to agree to any compromise with Iran. Do you have a clear red line which you would not cross, if involved in negotiations? Issues like the status of Iran’s enriched uranium stockpiles or limits on Iran’s nuclear research and development program?

Herzog: I see this agreement as very problematic. The breakout time for building a bomb needs to be dealt with in all parameters and the timeline extended. It has to be made clear that Iran cannot continue building a nuclear weapon. Iran is a major threat to the world.

Profil: But if no compromise deal is reached it might lead much quicker to Iran having a nuclear bomb, don’t you think?

Herzog: The world needs to be real tough with these guys. They spread hate.

Interview: Tessa Szyszkowitz/Tel Aviv

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© 2018 Tessa Szyszkowitz