In Special Interview With Ari Shavit, Herzog Declares: I Am Going to Form Next Government

Zionist Union’s co-chair says he has spent his life surprising people who have written him off. Can he pull off the biggest shock of all and become Israel’s next premier?

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Zionist Union coleader Isaac Herzog.Credit: Ilya Menikov

Is the man sitting next to me going to be the next prime minister of Israel? Does he have a chance of replacing Benjamin Netanyahu, forming a different government and setting Israel on a new path?

Isaac Herzog has no doubts. I have always been surprising, he says. It was always said of me that I did not have the ability, yet I proved that I had it. When I was appointed social welfare minister [in 2007], they said, “What does this kid from Tzahala [an upscale Tel Aviv suburb] know about social welfare?” But two weeks later they went very quiet, and a year later they saw the results – a revolution in the social-welfare services. Then, when I ran for leadership of the Labor Party, they said, “He has no charisma, no chance against Shelly Yacimovich.” But I worked with people and connected people, and the outcome spoke for itself. And when I said a year ago that I would be the alternative to Netanyahu’s government, they laughed at me, pooh-poohed me and said, “What is Bougie talking about?” But the moment the campaign started, and the moment the connection with Tzipi [Livni] was created, everything changed. You will see it for yourself shortly – the smell of profound political change is in the air. There is extraordinary momentum throughout the country. More and more people realize Zionist Union is going to win this election, and that I am going to form the next government. Just as I surprised everyone in the past, I am going to surprise everyone this time, too. This moment is my moment.

The muddied, tightly-packed jeep of opposition leader Isaac Herzog leaves the home where he grew up and where he now lives with his wife Michal and their three children: Noam, 26; Matan, 22; and Roey, 15. The view through the window changes constantly: the villas of Tzahala, the Ramat Hasharon Tennis Center, Kafr Qasem. From this close up, Herzog, 54, seems a bit more grown up than he looks on the television screen, and a bit less heroic than he looked in the legendary photograph produced by media adviser Reuven Adler.

Even though God blessed him with the genes of Peter Pan, his face has its first wrinkles. With his dark blue knit shirt, dark blue jacket and beige glasses, he does not look like a bar-mitzvah boy who is running for president, but rather an important, contemplative person who stays surprisingly cool even in troubled times. Is he a levelheaded, responsible leader? We will talk about the leader part later in the day, but he is definitely levelheaded and responsible. He is a skilled and sophisticated politician with a steel jaw of unbounded ambition behind his cute baby teeth.

I ask him: Do you really think you can be prime minister? Are you strong enough? Do you have the inner resources you will need to withstand the terrible pressure that is applied to the lone room at the end of the corridor in Jerusalem? The prime minister of Israel has the toughest job in the world, after all, and you are perceived as a spoiled softy from the Herzog, Fox & Neeman law office in north Tel Aviv.

People are wrong about me, Herzog replies. Because of my appearance, my voice and my background, they do not realize whom they are dealing with. I am much stronger than people think. I have inner strength and perseverance. I also have high emotional intelligence. I work hard; I am serious, a thinker and a compulsive reader. Over the 25 years I have been in politics, I have accumulated experience that few possess. I was minister of housing, social welfare and tourism. I was cabinet secretary and a member of the security cabinet, and I am head of the opposition. I have taken part in making crucial decisions. When the archives are opened, it will be seen that I was quite assertive in the most sensitive debates that took place here. I asked questions, probed and thought, but in the end I was more daring than the decorated generals and heads of the Shin Bet security service, with their great reputations.

Extraordinary roots

Isaac Herzog was born in 1960, in Tel Aviv. His grandfather, Rabbi Yitzhak HaLevi Herzog, was the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of the State of Israel. His father, Chaim Herzog, was the head of the Israel Defense Forces’ Military Intelligence, UN ambassador and the sixth president of Israel (1983-1993). His mother, Aura Herzog, established the Council for a Beautiful Israel. One of his uncles was Yaakov Herzog, the legendary director general of the Prime Minister’s Office and ambassador. Another uncle was Abba Eban. Through the window we see Wadi Ara, the Jezreel Valley and the Harod Valley. A telephone call comes from Livni. A telephone call comes from Adler.

I am fighting against a clever and sophisticated person who cannot take criticism, Herzog says of Netanyahu. He has been dragged, in a state of hysteria, into dangerous corners. He is damaging basic principles of Israeli statesmanship. He is endangering the Jewish democratic state. He is wearing down the most important strategic asset we possess: our alliance with the United States. And he drips fear. He drips fear all the time. We have never had a prime minister who terrified his nation as much as “Bibi” does.

OK, I say. We get it, you will not be voting for Netanyahu. But what alternative do you propose? What kind of prime minister are you going to be?

A workaholic, Herzog says with a smile. A prime minister who works hard but quietly. Calmly. A prime minister who does not just talk about threats, but also provides hope. A prime minister who thinks not only of himself, but also of his citizens. A prime minister who constantly remembers the people who live here, and the pain and hardship that exist here. But also a prime minister who is familiar with the magnificent mosaic of Israeli society and can appreciate and connect all its parts. I will act with sober judgment. I will work harmoniously with the professional echelon. In less than a year after I become prime minister, Israel will be a different country: calm, soothed, sane.

Those are lovely words, I tell Herzog. Truly lovely words. But give me meat. Give me concrete statements. What are the first five things you will do if you are elected?

First I will visit my father’s grave, Herzog says, without missing a beat. Then I will carry out the Trajtenberg program that will create fundamental and comprehensive socioeconomic change here [originally proposed by economist Manuel Trajtenberg following the social protests of 2011; Trajtenberg is also Zionist Union’s candidate for finance minister]. I will go to Washington and meet with President Obama and turn over a new leaf with him. I will go to Cairo and meet with President [Abdel-Fattah] al-Sissi and see whether he can get [Palestinian President] Mahmoud Abbas back on track with the peace process. And I will make a gesture to the Arab population. Maybe I will appoint an Arab minister. I will show that the time of disunity and internal rift is over, and that a time of healing and reconciliation has begun.

A surprise in Beit She’an

But in order to do all those wonderful things, one must first win an election. And as we drive into Beit She’an, I am still asking myself whether Herzog has got what it takes, whether he is capable of doing the impossible: defeating Benjamin Netanyahu and forming a center/center-left government.

What kind of reception awaits the prince from Tzahala in Beit She’an, a Likudnik city in northern Israel?

One of friendly indifference. What characterizes Herzog’s visit to Beit She’an is the surprising fact that he arouses no opposition. In previous election campaigns, the Labor candidate could not set foot here without arousing hatred and a riot breaking out. But 2015 is different. Zionist Union is different. Isaac Herzog is different. And when he visits Beit She’an’s Likud mayor, Rafael Ben-Shitrit, and asks for his blessing, he does not get a positive answer. However, he does not encounter hostility either. When he embarks on a lightning tour of the open-air market and asks for support, he does not garner enthusiasm, but nor does he arouse opposition.

Netanyahu has made himself abhorrent even to the most die-hard Likudniks. Likud has weakened dramatically, even in its strongest bastions. And Zionist Union’s brand is a stroke of genius that has defused much of the traditional hostility. So when Herzog’s team of cheerleaders descend upon Beit She’an’s open-air market with a chant of “Hoo, hah, who is this? It’s the next prime minister!”, it cuts through the place like a knife through butter. And when the Zionist Union jingle plays loudly in Likud’s greatest stronghold, no one comes out against it. “Only suckers buy what Bibi sells,” the loudspeaker shouts at full volume. “Bibi is screwing all of us – on housing, vegetables, fruit.” We are creating a political turnabout, promise Zionist Union. And Herzog goes from vendor to vendor, shopper to shopper, asking them their names and how they are doing, promising that it can be different, promising that he is their hope.

You really like that, I tell him when he comes back to the jeep. I love it, he says, smiling. It’s not the hoo-hah-who-is-this march. It’s the people, he says. The contact with people. I am really a people person. I really like people, and they feel it. I’m not sure we collected a lot of votes here, but we proved that we’re here. Even in this city.

So is there hope? Labor has had only two winners since the political revolution of 1977 [when the Left lost power for the first time in the state’s history]: Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak. Herzog is not Rabin, or even Barak. He did not unify Jerusalem, free the hostages in Entebbe or stand in white overalls on the wing of a Sabena aircraft (as Barak did during the storming of a hijacked plane in May 1972).

But the array of powers that works in Herzog’s favor is often reminiscent of the one that brought Netanyahu down in 1999. The left wing is mobilized and determined this time, too. Also this time, the right wing is fragmented and confused. The anti-Sheldon Adelsons are generous in their financial support. The media is doing all it can to smear Netanyahu. And there is the state comptroller’s report about excess spending at the prime minister’s residences. Plus the state comptroller’s report about the housing crisis. The recording of Sara Netanyahu (criticizing the former mayor of Sderot and extolling the virtues of her husband), the damning statement of former Mossad chief Meir Dagan, lobbying group V15. They are storming Netanyahu’s Bastille from all directions, trying to make its walls tumble down.

As darkness descends over the Jordan Valley, the latest poll predictions come in. Likud is down one seat, Zionist Union is up one, and Yesh Atid is growing stronger. Four different parties are gnawing on Bibi’s liver at the same time, says Herzog: Naftali Bennett’s Habayit Hayehudi; Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu; Arye Dery’s Shas; and Eli Yishai’s Yahad. If this trend continues, Likud will shrink, creating the gap of three to four seats I need so that President Reuven Rivlin will have no alternative but to offer me the task of forming the government.

And if I receive the mandate, says Herzog, I will fulfill it. I am the only person in the political system who can work simultaneously with the ultra-Orthodox, the Russians, the Arabs and the left wing. Personally, most of the leaders of the small- to medium-centrist parties [Yesh Atid, Kulanu] prefer me. So all I need is the chance. If enough people will trust me, I am confident I will not disappoint them.

But, I tell him, just as the small right-wing parties are gnawing on Bibi’s liver, Yair Lapid is gnawing on yours. You criticize Netanyahu, but the people who are drawing away from him are not going to vote for you. Instead, they will be voting for the former finance minister [Lapid]. Herzog is quiet. Both he and Adler understand the problem. But they both like Lapid and are connected to him socially. Finally, they will have no choice but to go to war against him – but that “finally” could be too late. Oddly enough, Bennett and Lieberman are Herzog’s great hope, while Lapid is Netanyahu’s last.

Loyalty to the partnership

Tzipi Livni is waiting for us on Kibbutz Afikim, near Lake Kinneret. The alliance between Livni, a lawyer from Ramat Hahayal [another upscale Tel Aviv neighborhood], and Herzog, a lawyer from Tzahala, became a formative and successful move in the 2015 election campaign. A few months ago Herzog was on the ropes, while Livni was beneath them. It is true: a muddy wave has hit the polls. Livni generates enthusiasm on the center-left and among young people, but is unloved by the center-right and the right-right. Advisers have no great liking for her, either. But Herzog has been heard to say privately to those telling him to ditch Livni that he would rather lose with her than win without her. He has not forgotten where both of them were six months ago.

The kibbutzniks are a tough crowd. Many of them left Labor for Kadima in 2009, and many opted for Yesh Atid in 2013. They ask hard questions now, too. We are not hearing you; we are not seeing you; when does the campaign start? Why is there no strong voice on security? Why is there no strong dovish voice? Why is Shelly not the candidate for finance minister? What is going to happen with the Israel Land Authority? What about public transportation on Saturdays? Isn’t Livni a Trojan horse?

At the front of the kibbutz dining hall, which is filled to capacity, Herzog and Livni are undaunted and unoffended, answering one question after another. We must lift our heads because we are going to win, Herzog says. Israel is in conflict with the U.S. administration. Young people cannot buy homes, farmers cannot make a living, and the socioeconomic gaps are widening. But the nation is no longer willing to be held captive by a leader who is heading toward a dead end. That is why we decided to form a partnership. That is why we joined a large Zionist movement. We realized we had a one-time opportunity to take the reins of government from Netanyahu. But in order for a political turnabout to happen, we have to be the biggest. Don’t waste your vote on the trendy parties. Give us your support, as you gave support to Yitzhak Rabin.

Livni continues where Herzog left off, as if in a perfect duet. The one-time princess of the Betar movement takes off her blue jacket and paces back and forth at the front of the dining hall as she holds the microphone. We came from different places, she says. My parents were members of the Irgun [the pre-state underground militia], while his belonged to the Haganah [the rival pre-state army of Palestine’s Jews]. But we share a deep understanding that we are fighting a shared battle for Zionism, for the values of the Declaration of Independence. I believe that Isaac Herzog is worthy and capable of being Israel’s next prime minister, and that he must be.

There are two people inside me, Herzog says on the way back to the jeep. I seem restrained, but something very strong burns within me. Maybe it is from my father and mother. Father always kept his distance and was restrained, and Mother was an erupting volcano. That is why I have such strong drive. But I have brakes and filters. I am also bashful. I will never sit down in the middle of the room, but at the back. And I loathe the display of power. Michal and I try to live modestly. So my style of leadership is different. I am not a general, but a citizen who works with people. So am I in awe of the room [prime minister’s office] in Givat Ram that you speak of? Of course I feel deep reverence for it, like the High Priest entering the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur. But I am not fearful. I will be able to work there. I have common sense and am capable of appointing the best people there are. I can lead in my own way, and since I am building a skilled coalition, I will be able to link all the Israeli tribes, recognize Israel’s multiculturalism, promote social justice, anchor democracy and extend a hand to our neighbors. You will see: I will calm Israel. I will do the unexpected there, too.

Herzog pays a condolence call to a small Arab village in the Ma’aleh Gilboa region. It is late, he is tired and the campaign is pressured. But as is his wont, Herzog is indefatigable. He shakes hands, asks about the circumstances of the disaster, expresses his sympathy. There, too, he is nimble and efficient. He does not stay in any one place for too long. He is always thinking about the next destination. He touches one person and moves on quickly to the next one.

Striving for harmony

Once we are back inside the jeep, I ask: Isn’t all of this a big game? Don’t you actually have a deal with Netanyahu? Aren’t we headed for another Labor-Likud national unity government? Herzog swears he has made no deals with anyone. It is true that as opposition leader he had a gentlemanly relationship with the prime minister. But as far as he is concerned, Netanyahu is leading Israel to a very dangerous place. He must be replaced. And that is why he is not dealing with any alternative but total victory. What he is doing is shattering the conceptual template that holds that a political turnaround is impossible.

But the numbers do not add up, I tell him. It is hard to see a situation in which an alternative government is formed. The nation has become right wing and, ultimately, the ultra-Orthodox go with the right-wing bloc.

Herzog disagrees. He takes out a bag of coated peanuts, telling me they keep him going during the election campaign, and starts describing the situation as he sees it. A great many people have grown tired of Bibi, he says. A great many people feel that the country is stuck. They are fed up, and there is a strong desire for normalcy everywhere. So the movement is a broad-based one that can bring about unexpected results.

So let us assume it happens: you come close to winning 30 seats, defeat Netanyahu, form a government and fulfill your dream of becoming prime minister. Is there really a chance for peace? For sharing the land? Will you have the strength to evict settlers?

Definitely, says Herzog. I will try to construct a process that will bring the Palestinians toward an agreement. The decision about the disengagement [from Gaza in 2005] was a correct one demographically, but its lesson is clear: No withdrawal unless there is someone to take responsibility for the territory. So if it proves impossible to reach a permanent arrangement, I will try to go with an interim agreement based on delineating the border and ensuring security. And then, if the moment should come when settlements must be removed, I will do so. But I will do so only as Begin did: by agreement and after dialogue with the settlers themselves.

We arrive back at where we began: the house on Tzahal Street. I am traveling the length and breadth of the country, Herzog says. I know and love Israeli society, and I serve it. And I am always looking for the middle path, like Maimonides. I am a social democrat who wants both a free market and a just state. I am a pragmatist who tries to act fairly. I try to bring the contradictions into harmony and unity. So I believe that some form of normalcy will be restored if I am elected, and national dignity as well. My grandfather Yitzhak, for whom I am named, wrote the prayer for welfare of the State of Israel. And that prayer is so right: Spread over it [the State of Israel] Your tabernacle of peace; send good counsel to [Israel’s] ministers and advisers. Grandfather never guessed that his son would be president and that his grandson would be a leading candidate for prime minister. But his words are engraved within me. I detest flowery language. I am a practical person. But I am a true Zionist, for all that. I get tears in my eyes when I hear “Hatikva.” And I believe we can come back to a Zionism of normalcy. If I succeed in bringing this long campaign to its goal, there will be a different country here. Israel will become reconciled with itself.