Meet Isaac Herzog, the Israeli Politician Who Speaks English With a Democratic Accent
Labor’s new leader wants to mend ties with Washington, and he’s looking at Obama and de Blasio for inspiration
This kind of middle-of-the-road approach—criticizing the government just enough to get a point across, but perhaps not enough to make an impact—has earned Herzog more than a few critics. Last week, when the financial newspaper Globes broke the news that Netanyahu had kept an offshore bank account on Jersey, some in the Israeli press were baffled that Herzog didn’t pounce. “Excuse me, where’s the head of the opposition?” journalist Tal Schneider tweeted, adding, “Herzog’s silence is very strange.” Nahum Barnea, a political columnist for Yediot Ahronot, told me: “He has something that projects the image of a goodie two-shoes. Maybe it’s his voice, his tone, his attitude.” Barnea went on, “The opposition is very, very weak right now. He doesn’t have the temperament to head an opposition. He doesn’t have that militant or combative nature.”
One night in December, I joined Herzog for an unofficial gathering with voters at a Tel Aviv bar off Ibn Gabirol Street. The place was packed. People were leaning against tables, cradling pints of beer. Some were smoking, despite an official ban. Between sips of Jack Daniel’s, Herzog made time for a question-and-answer session. (“It really is good!” he complimented the bartender on his whiskey.) While many of the questions seemed to concern only a young Tel Avivian demographic—“What do you think about the recent tax hike on alcohol?” “What are you planning to do about the shortage of light drugs?”—others addressed Labor’s dismal showing in recent elections. “Would you consider uniting with Hatnua?” a young woman asked, referring to a new party formed by Tzipi Livni, a former leader of the opposition. Another man got up. He wanted to know if Herzog would consider relinquishing his seat in order to join forces with Yair Lapid, a telegenic television host whose new Yesh Atid party stunned the political establishment by pulling in the largest number of votes after Netanyahu in the last election. Herzog deftly obfuscated, as he later did with me, saying things like, “I’m definitely open to having these negotiations.” Labor’s diminished presence is clearly on his mind.
Israel’s two largest parties had traditionally been Labor on the left and Likud on the right. With the country’s growing political fragmentation, however, both parties have consistently lost votes to smaller, niche parties, such as the dovish Meretz, or Shas, an ultra-Orthodox Sephardic party. In addition, centrist “mood parties” continue to spring up in between one election cycle and the next. These parties typically manage to tap into a Zeitgeist-y cultural sentiment and sweep an impressive amount of votes. The party of the moment is Yesh Atid, which successfully targeted a disillusioned middle class that felt more burdened by the soaring cost of housing than by the country’s perennial conflict with the Palestinians. Yet such parties are like shifting desert sand dunes—here one day, gone the next. Kadima, formed by Ariel Sharon and once Israel’s largest party, has crashed; it’s not expected to survive another election. Yesh Atid, last year’s darling, is now projected to lose at least five seats in the next parliament.
In the run-up to the last election, Netanyahu managed to stop the leakage from Likud by teaming up with Yisrael Beiteinu, the party of Avigdor Lieberman, his hardline foreign minister. A poll released this month by Israel’s Channel 2 showed that if elections were held now, the joint Likud-Beiteinu list would be up to 33 seats of the parliament’s 120 seats (it currently has 31), while Labor under Herzog would be up to only 16 (from its current 15). Labor continues to be a shadow of its former self, a “party of good people who are locked in endless inner battles,” as Barak told me. Likud, on the other hand, “is like a soccer team—it doesn’t matter if it’s raining or if the team loses—the fans are still there.”
Yet Herzog identifies what might be Netanyahu’s Achilles’ heel: a core group of nationalist far-right Likudniks who object to any kind of diplomatic compromise and are consistently pulling the party away from the more moderate mainstream—not unlike an Israeli version of the Tea Party. As Herzog put it to me: “Likud has been hijacked by a group of extremist settlers.”
And even more than party politics, Israel is defined by blocs—the sum of parliament seats belonging to the left or the right. It’s here that Herzog sees an opening. The right-wing bloc now has 61 seats, compared to 59 seats on the left. It wouldn’t take much, therefore, to tip the scale. “It’s pretty much even at this point,” said Nadav Perry, a political correspondent for Israel’s Channel 10. “The paradox is that Netanyahu is perceived as the only one who can be prime minister, and yet he isn’t popular.” The real test for Herzog, then, Perry said, is whether “he and prime minister are two things that can go together.” He added, “Right now, he’s very far from that.”
Herzog has two options for improving his political position. The first is to unite with Lapid or Livni or, preferably, with both—a plot the three parties had once tried to hatch under Yachimovich but failed to pull off. The second is to hope that as the peace talks progress Netanyahu’s coalition will splinter. The religious far-right party Habayit Hayehudi, or The Jewish Home, headed by Naftali Bennett, will likely be the first to walk out. This might create space for Herzog, following the script laid out by Barak, to fill the void and join Netanyahu’s government. As Barnea told me, “If the framework agreement is written in such a way that would force Bennett and maybe even some within Likud to resign, Labor would jump into the government in 15 minutes. It would jump in head first.”
It’s a testament to the country’s fickle political reality that the future of the Israeli left may be riding on whether a right-wing government can bring about a peace deal. In trying to lure voters from the right, Herzog said his message was clear. “I tell them, ‘Look, we believe in a platform that calls for the security of Israel, but in order to achieve that we must at the same time pursue peace. Relax! Stop being so afraid.’ ”
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As Edgar Bronfman is eulogized in Manhattan, looking back to a Jewish coming of age in a time of war and sorrow