Only yesterday Isaac Herzog seemed on the up. He was the first leader of the Israeli Labor party for over a decade who at least in the polls seemed to have a fighting chance to become the next prime minister. Buoyed on the growing disenchantment with Benjamin Netanyahu and a certain degree of approval among centrist voters of the imminent deal between Labor and Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah, Labour was actually leading in the polls. And then he signed a "freier’s" deal, promising Livni, leader of a party on the brink of electoral extinction, the second half of the next prime ministerial term should they win the election.
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There is no label more fatal for anyone in Israeli public life than that of a “freier.” Pushover, sucker, dupe, patsy, soft-touch – the freier is all of these and more, and no word in English conveys the sheer contempt we feel for the freier who allows himself to be taken advantage of. Entire advertising campaigns are built upon not letting anyone think you’re a freier . And there’s no bigger freier than the pale-faced limp-wristed Ashkenazi intellectual arriving in the Levant without any street-smarts.
It’s not fair, especially as Herzog is actually much sharper, indeed ruthless, than his limpid demeanor gives him credit for. His slight figure, high-pitched voice and exquisite manners hide his keen intelligence and political instincts, which was great when he was a lawyer and a political fixer, but is crippling now that he’s running against Netanyahu for the highest office.
In his launch speech of the new joint Knesset list, Herzog explained his “rotation” deal with Livni saying “we have to go together, because only together we can win,” and that in this election, the center-left camp is putting egos aside in the interest of deposing Netanyahu.
Maybe Herzog actually believes that and perhaps his ego is adaptable enough to contemplate sharing power with Livni, but Israeli voters won’t see his altruism. All they will see is this Ashkenazi freier who gave two years as prime minister to Livni, who was so obviously playing with a busted hand.
If there is one reason why Netanyahu has succeeded three times in grasping the premiership and could well be on the way to a fourth victory, it is that he managed to project the image of the opposite of a freier. It didn’t matter that in many cases, behind closed doors he capitulated before empty threats. In public he would never have admitted hat he was willing to share power, that anyone else besides him is a suitable prime minister.
Netanyahu’s conviction in his own inevitable leadership doesn’t necessarily engender affection, but it does make Israelis begrudgingly admire him and believe he is a mean son-of-a-bitch who will fight like an alley cat for Israel’s interests. But Herzog? He just gave away half his term to Livni, how can we expect a freier like that to face all those hostile goyim Obama, Abbas and Rouhani on our behalf?
Both men are sincere. Netanyahu really cannot envisage another man (or woman) leading Israel. And he succeeded in convincing enough Israelis that if he wants the job so much, he just may be the right person. Herzog would like to be prime minister and believes he could be a good one, but it’s not an obsession for him. That may be an honorable position but it’s not doing him any favors with the Israeli public. If he can’t at least look like he’s hungry for the job, so hungry that he can’t share, then he probably won’t get the job.