The head of Israel’s main opposition Thursday promised to reignite the peace process as Prime Minister, suggesting a resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict would enable Israel to play a more productive role in helping address the turmoil embroiling the Middle East.
“There is a unique strategic opportunity for Israel to align with moderate Arab states around us and to identify convergence of interests. And as such build strength in preventing dangerous, lunatic, horrible acts of terror,” Labor Party Chairman Isaac Herzog said in an interview with CNN.
Herzog’s Labor Party has been locked in a close race with Netanyahu’s Likud Party leading up to the March 17 parliamentary election. Netanyahu is campaigning on his strong national security credentials, portraying Herzog as weak and inexperienced to address Israel’s many security challenges.
Although his poll numbers have been slipping, slightly many Israelis say they still trust Netanyahu over Herzog to keep Israel safe.
But in the wide-ranging interview, Herzog pointed to a “growing and disappointment and mistrust about Netanyahu’s security policy, “citing his settlement policy and his tense relationship with President Barack Obama.
“I think that he failed and I’m trying to call his bluff on this,” he said, adding Israel’s deterrence “is not adequate.”
Herzog said Arab hatred of Israel over its actions toward the Palestinians, particularly settlement construction, was preventing the country from contributing its considerable military and intelligence assets to help combat terror attacks from ISIS.
He noted that other militant groups like Hezbollah and Hamas as part of the “same elements who operate with terror tools in order to harass decent human beings”
“I think Israel should be a vital member of that coalition,” Herzog said. “Strategically Israel has a golden opportunity of tilting its situation regionally and internationally.”
For example, Herzog said Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians was fueling recent attacks against Jewish targets across European countries.
“There is a mixture of anti-Israelis with anti-Semitism –and Islamic forces around the world are boiling and stirring it up together,” Herzog said. “Their aim is one to eradicate us. But they are mixing this with anti-Israeli feelings based on the issue, for example of settlements. We have to be smart and innovative about the way we handle it. “
Herzog said he would seek to “reignite” the peace process, starting with negotiating borders and security first. He has teamed up with former Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, the lead negotiator in peace talks with the Palestinians, which broke down last summer.
“Security is an underlining interest of Israel,” he said. “No deal could be carved out without identifying the sincere and inherent most sense of security that Israel needs.”
He said determining the borders and large settlement blocks Israel would annex as part of a final status deal, with certain land swaps, would prevent Israel from continuing to build in areas that were likely to form part of a future Palestinian state. That settlement construction has been a main source of the tension between the parties.
The settlement blocks Herzog referred to were contained in the so-called “Clinton parameters,” guidelines for a permanent status agreement to the conflict proposed by then-president Bill Clinton.
“I definitely don’t intend to initiate or enable construction outside the blocks,” he said, calling such a move confidence building measure that will “give a certain sense of change and hope.”
Herzog said he would also initiate an international process to demilitarize and rehabilitate Gaza, along the lines of what he called a “mini Marshall Plan,” modeled after the American initiative to rebuild Europe after World War II.
However he added the caveat that the Palestinians would have to abandon plans to seek statehood at the United Nations and join the International Criminal Court. which he said Israel “will never accept and will fail.”
“I am not naïve, I know exactly who we are dealing with,” he said. “But I don’t know what types of Abbas I will meet find the day after. Will he be willing to meet and sit down and talk and move toward a process? Or will he be in love with unilateral action. If he is in love with unilateral action we will be there to confront him and his activity.”
His comments sought to define a more statesmanlike and diplomatic approach to Israel’s security than the combative style often attributed to the Prime Minister.
“Security is not only at the balance of the gun. It has to do with much more than this; it has to regional alliances with our neighbors such as Jordan and Egypt. It has to do with our strategic alliance with the United States. “
Herzog called Netanyahu’s decision to address Congress “a strategic mistake” and called on the Prime Minister to cancel his visit next week to Washington.
“I think he is preaching to the converted, ” Herzog said. “I’m worried about a bad deal and about caving into all sort of Iranian pressure as well. But I think it is more important to rebuild confidence and trust with those who are really doing the negotiations, including the P5 plus one and the US leadership in order to make sure they hear what we have to say – which is definitely legitimate.”