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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

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U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry poses for photographers with Israeli Labor Party Leader Isaac Herzog before the two held a meeting in Jerusalem on Jan. 6, 2014. (U.S. State Department)
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On a recent cool but sunny afternoon, I sat waiting for Isaac Herzog, the new leader of Israel’s Labor Party, at a sleepy café near his home in the tree-lined Tel Aviv neighborhood of Tsahala. Herzog, who is universally known by his childhood nickname Buji, came to our meeting flanked by two bodyguards, a security courtesy accorded to him as the head of Israel’s political opposition. He wore a black collared shirt and an unzipped black wool jacket with leather sleeves. The dark ensemble had a no-nonsense effect. But any attempt at toughness was quickly dispelled. “I’m freezing,” he said, and asked that we move indoors. He caught the waitress’s arm and ordered sahlab, a hot milky beverage, which he then sipped with a spoon.

It had been a busy few weeks since his upset victory in November over Shelly Yachimovich, the radio host and television anchor who tried, and failed, to remake what has traditionally been the party of peace into a vehicle for populist outrage over economic inequality. But Herzog seemed more animated by a conference, scheduled for the following week, celebrating 100 years since his grandfather, Yitzhak HaLevi Herzog, Israel’s first chief rabbi, published his doctoral thesis on the origins of the blue color used in Jewish prayer shawls, or tallit. The elder Herzog’s discovery—that the turquoise dye had been originally extracted from the Murex snail—exemplified his belief in the vibrant connection between Judaism and science.

But Herzog has his work cut out for him. He won his position after failing, resoundingly, to make it to the second round of voting just two years earlier. He is the scion of one of the most famous political families in Israel, whose influence and reach vaguely approximate a mash-up of the Kennedys and the Clintons: His father, Chaim Herzog, was Israel’s sixth president. His uncle served as policy adviser to David Ben-Gurion. As Herzog told me, only half kidding, “I have a thousand other uncles, everyone of whom was an icon.” For Herzog, that background represents continuity with an Israel that is vanishing. The law firm where he spent years working was co-founded by his father Chaim and bears the family name, and the house he shares with his wife Michal and their three children is the same one he grew up in, where his father planted the palm tree in the backyard more than 60 years ago.

Yet pedigree doesn’t breed panache. For years, Herzog seemed destined to play second fiddle to Labor’s outsized personalities, like Barak and Yachimovich. They are the last two of Labor’s leaders and the products, respectively, of two of the country’s highest-profile institutions—the military and the media. Compared to them, and despite his distinguished surname, Herzog was perceived as something of a nonentity, a capable technocrat at most—a man lauded across the political aisle for his achievements as welfare minister between 2007 and 2011 but seen as devoid of personal charisma, real ambition, and flair. At 53, he is lean, short, and has youthful blue eyes and a mop of brown hair that bring to mind the typecast of a nice dad from a 1990s sitcom. Part of the problem, however superficial, seems to be his tone of voice, which has a whispery, high-pitched register. In a country that likes its rulers burly and gruff—with a particular penchant for former generals—Herzog has received a fair share of ridicule for coming across as wimpy.

But Herzog has his advantages: The son and grandson of British-born and -educated Jews, he is, like Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu but unlike both Barak and Yachimovich, a near-native speaker of English. (Herzog also spent three years living in New York as a teenager while his father was serving as Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, and he attended the Ramaz School, on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.) His chief point of contention with Netanyahu is the government’s endlessly fraying relations with Washington, and specifically with the Barack Obama Administration. During the Labor primary, Herzog found time to read The Bridge, David Remnick’s biography of President Obama, and has since become fascinated by the rise of Bill de Blasio. If the old quip about Netanyahu speaking English with a Republican accent is to be updated, it appears that Herzog’s English is fully that of a progressive East Coast Democrat.

***

“Buji believes that Israel’s relationship with the U.S. is its primary asset,” Robert Wexler, president of the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace and a former Democratic congressman, who has known Herzog for many years, told me. “Americans appreciate his respect for the bond.” And the envoys from Obama’s inner circle, certainly, appreciate the renewed attention from their natural political partners to the issue they care most about: a peace settlement between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

In October, when he was campaigning for his new post, Herzog made no bones about his intention to shift his focus from the price of cottage cheese—an issue that became a catchall for the economic squeeze felt by the middle-class voters Yachimovich tried, and failed, to court—back to Topic A: security. In a speech in front of Labor supporters, he repeatedly slammed the direction that the party had taken: “How did we get to a point where the party of Yitzhak Rabin, who was assassinated 18 years ago for acting relentlessly in the pursuit of peace, has erased its duty to reach a solution, agree on recognized borders, and end its subjugation of another people, from its agenda? When did we make the security issue a taboo? When did we start ignoring those who pay the price for our control of another people? When did we stop believing that there are two disastrous options if we fail to reach an agreement: an apartheid state, or one nation from the Sea to Jordan? When did we stop realizing that time is against us?” “His heart is in this issue, no doubt,” Eitan Cabel, one of Herzog’s closest allies within the Labor Party, told me. “That’s his strength.” Herzog’s political mentor Ehud Barak concurred. “I’m certain that Buji will concern himself with the security issue,” Barak told me. “He loves it. He lives it.”

However earnest Herzog is about the practical realities of the security situation, though, he’s also well aware that it’s a venue for drawing a political distinction with his Labor predecessors. “The problem was that Barak didn’t clash with Netanyahu over anything,” he told me. “He didn’t set himself apart. He didn’t present our party as a clear alternative.” It also allows him to set himself at odds with his right-wing opponents. Earlier this month, Moshe Ya’alon, the defense minister, drew the ire of the administration when he was quoted by an Israeli reporter as saying that John Kerry is “obsessive and messianic” about reaching a peace agreement—but Herzog also evoked adjectives of zealotry when asked about the secretary of State. The difference is that while Ya’alon meant it disparagingly—he added that he hoped Kerry “gets a Nobel Prize and leaves us alone”—Herzog was all fulsome praise. “I think Kerry is making a brave move, a historic one, even Jesuit, or religious,” he told me. “It’s difficult, I don’t know if it’s possible, but I told him what I tell everyone: We’ll be there to help anyone who advances the process. I told him, ‘Don’t despair, don’t despair.’ ”

But, as in many other issues, Herzog walks a fine line between accord and dissent. He agrees with Netanyahu that the new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is unlikely to bring about a real change in the country’s pursuit of nuclear armament—Herzog calls it a “5 percent chance”—but argues that the interim agreement, which would ease some of the sanctions on Tehran in return for a suspension of uranium enrichment, should be fully tried out first. “If the Iranians mean it: Great—show us. And if they don’t: Take into account a military option. Make it a clear step on the way to negotiations.”

Recently, negotiations between Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas were snagged by Netanyahu’s demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state. The Israeli government, Netanyahu said, sees a Palestinian recognition as a “minimal requirement.” But skeptics believe it to be mere foot-dragging on the prime minister’s part, noting that such a demand wasn’t made of Egypt or Jordan in their peace accords with Israel. On this issue, too, Herzog falls short of offering a full-throated critique of Netanyahu. He calls Netanyahu’s demand “reasonable,” but says that he believes it was mistimed and should come as part of the final parameters for peace, not as a precondition for a framework agreement.

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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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

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