Moderate ‘Ethnonationalist’ Addresses Congress

The President of Israel has been given the honor of addressing a joint session of Congress. Isaac “Bougie” Herzog descends from a notable family in Israel, including a former president, Chaim Herzog, his father.

As head of the Labor Party, Herzog forged an electoral alliance with Tzipi Livni’s centrist & dovish Hatnua (“the movement”) party. In 2015, their “Zionist Union” list came in second to Netanyahu’s Likud (winning 24 to Likud’s 30 mandates). With the Zionist Union mounting a serious challenge to his leadership, Netanyahu went to the air on election day with his infamous “Arabs are voting in droves” appeal, convincing far-right Israelis to vote for Likud rather than further right parties, thereby assuring his reelection.

Some time later, it was reported that, “Labor Party stalwart Efraim Sneh represented Yitzhak Herzog in arriving at a framework agreement [for peace] with an unnamed representative of PA Pres. Mahmoud Abbas, on the eve of the most recent Israeli election, March 2015.” It reportedly called for “mutual land swaps on four percent of the territory… so that Israel could retain control of its largest settlement blocs.” Yet Herzog refused Abbas’s urging to make this public, fearing that this agreement to cede 96% of the West Bank and some sovereign Israeli territory would undermine his election prospects.

Herzog’s refusal to run on this potential breakthrough underscores his lack of boldness as a political leader. But his mild manner and generally moderate sentiments have helped him in attempting recently to broker a compromise between the current Netanyahu government and the opposition over the former’s attempt at a radical “reform” of Israel’s judiciary. These talks have broken down, but this hasn’t ended his efforts, as indicated in this article at the e-Jewish Philanthropy website: “Israeli president launches new dialogue project to get country out of current ‘nosedive’.”

The above photograph (taken by Koby Zach and released by Israel’s Government Press Office) is captioned as follows: “President Isaac Herzog and his wife, Michal, speak to people at the launch
of a new dialogue initiative at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem on July 10, 2023.” To quote the article’s subhead, this “Program will use national network of community centers to foster healthy discourse within and between different groups.”

One wonders if fate may still give Herzog a potent card to play. Among his only actual prerogatives is the power to pardon. Might he dangle a pardon in front of the prime minister, currently on trial for corruption, on the condition that he permanently remove himself from public life?

Herzog’s ‘Ethnonationalism’

On the critical side, CUNY Professor Peter Beinart writes in The Guardian, July 18, defending the announced boycott of Herzog’s address by Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar and Jamaal Bowman. He points out that Bougie was associated with some illiberal statements, but ignores that they were salvos in the heat of an election campaign, responding to right-wing attacks and appealing to the security concerns of many voters, not expressions of his deepest thoughts and ideals:

. . . . In 2015, he issued a campaign video in which veterans of the Israeli military claimed that he “understands the Arab mentality” and “has seen Arabs in all kinds of situations”, including “in the crosshairs”. In 2016, Herzog said Labor needed to ditch its reputation as “Arab lovers”. When his remarks drew criticism, he doubled down, vowing that he would never “prefer the interests of the Palestinians”, who constitute 20% of Israel’s citizens and roughly 50% of the people under Israeli control.

Beinart goes on to harshly criticize Herzog for speaking “in the language of Jewish supremacy” and being an advocate of Jewish “ethnonationalism” for wanting the Jewish people to retain its majority in the country founded to protect the rights often denied them as a minority in other countries.

TTN shares Beinart’s concern for the rights of Arab citizens of Israel and of Palestinians living under occupation in the territories, but a tragic reality of the Arab and Muslim worlds is that they generally do not treat their minorities well. It is in this context that Israeli Jews “selfishly” guard their right to self-determination; this further underscores the need for a two-state solution.

To denigrate mainstream Zionism as “ethnonationalism” is to oppose even the advisability of a two-state solution. Formerly a liberal Zionist and staunch advocate of two states, Beinart now regards himself as a “cultural Zionist” in the pre-state tradition of Ahad Ha’am, and an advocate of binationalism, a common (albeit minority) Zionist perspective during the British Mandate. But that was then, and this is now.