Fury in Zionist Union as Herzog urges new approach to ‘find our way into the hearts of the public’; Arab MK demands he apologize

Head of the Labor party Isaac Herzog speaks at an event on April 12, 2016. (Tomer Neuberg/FLASH90)
Head of the Labor party Isaac Herzog speaks at an event on April 12, 2016. (Tomer Neuberg/FLASH90)


The leader of Israel’s center-left Zionist Union opposition party said Tuesday that to win over more of the Israeli public it had to stop giving the impression that it is a party of “Arab-lovers,” a derogatory term often used by the extreme right to insult those who they perceive as obsessively defending and championing Israeli Arabs or Palestinians, whether in the political or social spheres.

The remarks by Isaac Herzog, made public in a video posted by the Israeli daily Haaretz, set off a firestorm of criticism within the party.

“We have to understand the changes Israeli society is going through. It’s true, [Yesh Atid leader Yair] Lapid is taking votes from us in the polls because, among other reasons, he is moving to the right of us in the national consciousness, and we need to talk about what that means,” said Herzog at an event in Ashkelon Tuesday evening.

“What does ‘more right-wing’ mean?” asked Herzog, whose Labor Party is the main component of the Zionist Union. “I mean, we’re not going to become right-wingers,” he said. “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’?”

Herzog led his party to defeat at the hands of Benjamin 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.”

Herzog’s remarks prompted a series of condemnations by Labor Party and Zionist Union members, including former Labor chairman Shelly Yachimovich and Zouheir Bahloul, who himself stirred controversy earlier this month for declaring that Palestinian attackers who target soldiers and army positions are not terrorists.

“Is this an appropriate response for the head of the opposition to a demonstration by the radical right?” tweeted Yachimovich in reference to the 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.

The Tel Aviv rally attracted a small number of people from the radical right, including those who carried Kahanist signs and those identified with the violent anti-Arab Lehava group.

MK Bahloul 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 community [which makes up the Israeli Arab sector] 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, adding: “I condemn Herzog’s statement and demand an apology on behalf of the Israeli Arab community.”

In response to the criticism, Herzog’s office released a statement saying “we are not afraid to deal with problems that arise with regards to how the public sees Labor and the Zionist Union. One of the problem is a mistaken, dangerous impression that we consider the needs of the Palestinians above the needs of the State of Israel and its citizens.”

Herzog is facing a police probe into allegations he received unlawful financial contributions during his successful 2013 campaign for the Labor Party leadership. He is also suspected of failing to report a donation and making a false statement.

He was questioned under caution this week, a process that is often a precursor to the opening of a criminal investigation.

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

As reported by The Times of Israel