Israel election: How Isaac Herzog now holds the key to the country's future

His lacklustre tone betrays a distinguished political pedigree. And this scion of Zion, the son of a former president, may well see off Benjamin Netanyahu

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The Independent Online

His manner is lacklustre, almost bureaucratic at times.

Compared with Benjamin Netanyahu, the bullish Likud Party leader who has been Israel’s prime minister for the past six years, he is little known abroad; and at home, his background as a former lawyer and relatively low-key Knesset member from a celebrated Zionist family make him an unlikely revolutionary.

But what Isaac Herzog said in a television interview on Thursday reflected the way he has turned the country’s whole sense of priorities on its head – and seemed to confirm that not only the polls, but the political initiative in Israel, lies with the man who is apparently on course to defeat Mr Netanyahu in Tuesday’s general election.

“Housing is the number one problem facing the citizens of Israel,” Mr Herzog, 54, declared, matter of factly, in his familiar nasal voice, folowing it up yesterday in a new pitch to the voters. “I pledge to take personal responsibility for the problems facing our households, our pockets and our future.”  It may seem prosaic. But to a country still gripped by existential fears and often in thrall to the politicians who exploit them, Mr Herzog – who served in an elite army intelligence unit – has been trying with some success to shift the focus away from Iran, Mr Netanyahu’s favourite subject, and other security threats such as Hezbollah and Hamas. Instead he has drawn voters’ attention to gnawing concerns over soaring house prices and how to make ends meet. He has promised to establish and head a special cabinet committee to tackle the housing crisis.


The result is that it may soon be he who must sit down with the Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, to seek a path to peace – and he who must decide Israel’s response to the growing challenges it faces in the region.

The son of Israel’s sixth president, Chaim Herzog, Isaac has at least some connections with the US, still

Israel’s most important ally, having attended high school in New York while his father served as ambassador to the United Nations.

Although Mr Netanyahu cannot be counted out, Mr Herzog has momentum on his side. A Yediot opinion poll published yesterday gave the Zionist Camp grouping – of which Mr Herzog’s Labour Party is the largest member – 26 seats to 22 for Likud. Mr Herzog’s volunteers are speaking of a mahapach, or overturning, of Israeli politics.

To an extent Mr Herzog’s appeal lies not in who he is, but who he isn’t, in a ballot that is largely a referendum on Mr Netanyahu’s performance. Despite his lack of charisma, Herzog, who is married to Michal, a criminal lawyer, and has three sons, appeals to voters in areas where they are disillusioned with the premier.

“Herzog is in many ways the antithesis of Netanyahu,” says Leslie Susser, political editor at The Jerusalem Report magazine. “He is low profile and has a different socioeconomic approach. A lot of what he supports fits with the anti-Netanyahu tide ... people who see Netanyahu turning away from a two-state solution with the Palestinians and worry about the implications like Herzog’s approach better. People who want a fairer distribution of the national pie favour Herzog.”

Mr Herzog’s Zionist Union list sought during the final weeks of the campaign to stress his Zionist and army credentials. “A measured and responsible leader” became one of its main slogans.

He likes to boast about his grandfather, Isaac Halevi Herzog, who served as Israel’s first chief rabbi, and an uncle, Abba Eban, Israel’s renowned foreign minister during the 1960s. On Thursday, former Israeli president Shimon Peres and a friend of the family, endorsed his candidacy. The clear message was that Herzog’s experience in politics dates back to when he was a toddler. “I grew up in a house where service to the country was a way of life, not a means of reaching a personal goal,” he wrote in the popular Yediot Ahronoth newspaper. 

Mr Herzog has served as minister for social affairs, housing, tourism, and as opposition leader but has never held a senior foreign policy or security post. He built a reputation as a savvy politician, learning  how to reconcile conflicting groups, something that may stand him in good stead in a governing coalition – for which he will need to unite more than 60 MPs.

“He lacks some height and muscles but that really doesn’t matter,” said Uri Dromi, a former spokesman for Yitzhak Rabin. “He’s down to earth, quick, sharp, hard-working.”

Zionist Union supporters in T-shirts bearing Herzog’s nickname, ‘Buji’, during campaigning (Reuters)

Likud’s message in campaign adverts is that it would be reckless for voters to entrust their families’ lives to Mr Herzog, given his questionable security credentials. Zalman Shoval, former ambassador to Washington and a Likud member, told The Independent: “I’ve known him for many years. He is a very nice fellow... I’m not sure he has what is needed to run a country in our situation.”

The two times previously when a Labour leader ousted a Likud incumbent, it was led by tough-talking generals, Rabin and Ehud Barak. To address this weakness the Zionist Union stresses Mr Herzog will work in tandem with Tzipi Livni, the former foreign minister, and Amos Yadlin, a former army intelligence chief.

Mr Herzog has pledged to try to “re-ignite” talks with the Palestinians and repair frayed ties with Washington. Mr Netanyahu, he says, “fought our allies instead of our enemies and brought us to unprecedented international isolation.’’

So will Israelis crown the question mark that is Isaac Herzog? Yes, if they believe experience is not the only requisite. “Sure, Netanyahu is very experienced, but he didn’t reach anywhere good,” said Zionist Union volunteer Emanuel Salmon yesterday.

Israel's next PM: The other leading candidates

Benjamin Netanyahu

Seeking a fourth term, the 65-year-old has made security a main issue. His policy of settlement-building on occupied land has put him at loggerheads with many of Israel’s traditional allies. But he is still seen as the person most likely to cobble together a coalition on the right.

Ayman Odeh

The Arab Israeli lawyer heads the Joint Arab List and is gaining momentum. It is the first time Israel’s four Arab parties have united and they are predicted to win around 13 seats. Mr Odeh, 40, from Haifa, advocates an Arab-Jewish “alliance of the disadvantaged”. He has said his party would not join any government.

Tzipi Livni

Sacked by Mr Netanyahu in December after cabinet infighting, Ms Livni, a centrist who served as Justice Minister  and chief peace negotiator, seemed destined for the political wilderness until she struck the partnership deal with Yitzhak Herzog. A leading advocate of a two-state solution with the Palestinians, the 56-year-old has pledged to seek ways to resume peace talks.

Yair Lapid

Mr Lapid, 51, was the rising star of Israeli politics in the 2013 election. His centrist Yesh Atid party came second behind Mr Netanyahu’s Likud. As a result, Mr Netanyahu appointed him Finance Minister. Fired amid the government squabbling in December, Mr Lapid is a potential kingmaker, predicted to win 12 seats.