Israel's New Point Man

Gideon Alon
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Gideon Alon

Although not officially been appointed to the job, since the onset of the army offensive in Lebanon, Tourism Minister Isaac Herzog has been acting as the quasi-minister of information. He can be seen and heard in recent days on all of the major global news outlets, vehemently defending the government's decision to embark on the large-scale military campaign. Herzog is being quoted on the front pages of the most prestigious newspapers around the world, such as The New York Times and The Washington Post, after he was asked by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to do this additional job - thus stepping into the shoes of his father, the sixth president of Israel, Chaim Herzog, who during the Six-Day War and Yom Kippur War, was the point man for explaining Israel's case to the world.

As a member of the Labor Party with dovish political opinions, do you have any qualms about the cabinet decision to launch such a serious campaign against Lebanon?

Herzog: "Absolutely not. I back this decision, I support it and I identify with it. We have no choice. The enemy interpreted processes that we carried out as signs of weakness and has tried to cross red lines in an intolerable manner. They incorrectly interpreted our exit from Lebanon and from Gaza. Now we have to change the rules of the game, in order to restore stability and quiet to our borders. We currently enjoy relative international support, because in the past few years we have taken steps to unilaterally withdraw from territories we had held. It is inconceivable that we be punished twice, that we both evacuate areas that we had held and also sustain strikes inside of our borders. The public will have to demonstrate fortitude, mental toughness and a strong stomach. The government is very much united on this point, and the cooperation between the senior cabinet ministers is very good."

Aren't you afraid that we will once again become mired in Lebanese mud?

"The 'Lebanese mud' was taken into account by the cabinet when it decided to approve the operation. The steps that the cabinet has taken are meant to cause the Lebanese government and Lebanese public opinion to internalize the fact that they have to deal with Hezbollah and bring about a change in the situation in South Lebanon, on the basis of UN Security Council Resolution 425, which my father helped to draft back in 1978."

We were in Lebanon for 18 years, during which time approximately 1,000 soldiers were killed. In 1982, people also used to talk about driving the terrorists 40 km. away from the border. Can anyone say that we will not get tangled up in Lebanon again?

"The steps which the government has decided upon were taken judiciously and responsibly. The diplomatic arena will, at one stage or another, become a field for more assertive action, and the outcome will have to be a general change of the game. I heard Nasrallah's speech from the bunker last Friday. He sounded panicked. For years, he has played on Israelis' nerves, but now he will be surprised to find that the Israeli home front is stronger than he thinks. This past weekend, I visited settlements up north, where everyone told me: 'Keep it up - change the situation.'"

In planning and approving the operation, did the government take into account the possibility of civilian casualties on the home front, with Katyusha missiles reaching Haifa?

"This possibility was most certainly taken into account, including the possibility of Hezbollah trying to launch rockets at Haifa and points further south. Everything was placed on the cabinet table in the clearest way. That is why all of these precautions are now being taken. This is a difficult time, but there is no doubt that we will rise to the challenge. As for civilian Lebanese casualties, the Israel Defense Forces was given very strict instructions not to harm innocent citizens, and I know that we will make a strong effort in this regard. On Friday, the Hezbollah fired at Israeli settlements, so the IDF responded with a direct hit on Hezbollah headquarters in south Beirut."

During the withdrawal of the IDF from South Lebanon in 2000, you were the cabinet secretary in the Ehud Barak government. After the Israeli army's withdrawal, why didn't you attack the thousands of missiles that were deployed along the border?

"At the time of the withdrawal from Lebanon there were myriad considerations, including the hope of creating a new situation in Lebanon. We thought that Hezbollah would be a political party and that this would reduce the military threat it posed. To our regret, this did not happen, and in the past few years Hezbollah has deployed a highly dangerous and armed array along the border with Israel. It is now easy to criticize the fact that no actions were taken at that time against the missiles, but one must bear in mind the circumstances of the time, including diplomatic processes and the budding prosperity of the Galilee."

What is your impression of the performance of the government?

"Olmert and (Amir) Peretz are functioning outstandingly. They are demonstrating composure and weighing civil, diplomatic and military considerations. In general, the government is operating in a highly reasonable manner. We are having good cabinet sessions, and Olmert is running these sessions in an effective and poised manner. He has a more technocratic approach than did (Ariel) Sharon. A little bit like a chairman of the board. At first, he was a little edgy, but he has calmed down, and part of the better feelings around the table may be attributed to the healthier discourse that exists between him and Peretz. Improvement of the dialogue and the level of trust between them is essential in order to enable a reasonable functioning of the government, and in order to realize our objectives. They find themselves in the same boat, and are facing one of the most difficult challenges in recent years."

Their lack of experience is not to their disadvantage?

"Experience can at times lead to a fixed, flat approach. There is a lot of hypocrisy in all the talk about inexperience. It is sufficient to remind ourselves of the accusations that were cast against (Levy) Eshkol during the 'waiting period' prior to the Six-Day War. Today, all of the history books heap praises on him for his restraint, deliberation and ability to stand up to the military establishment. Olmert and Peretz are soberly trying to offer alternatives, and also to raise new ideas. Of course, when it comes to operational subjects they need professionals at their side who understand these matters, but in a democracy, the overriding idea is that the civilian side hears all of the opinions, and in the end makes the decisions."

As minister of tourism, could you say whether the government intends to compensate hotel and bed-and-breakfast owners in the north who have been caused huge losses by the events?

"Anyone who opens a business in northern Israel takes this into account. Last year was a period of prosperity. I hope that immediately after calm is restored to the north, Israeli tourists will return to the bed-and-breakfasts and the hotels. We have agreed with the director general of the Prime Minister's Office and the head of the taxation authority to sit down and work things out, with the intention of offering owners of businesses in northern Israel exemptions on purchase tax and access to a compensation fund, not only for the direct damage caused them, but also for the indirect damage."

Noblesse oblige

Isaac Herzog, 46, better known by his nickname Buzi, says this about himself: "I have always been considered slightly hyperactive. I asked my mother why she didn't give me Ritalin when I was born. I cannot waste a single minute of time. I sleep very little. I am always busy. To my good fortune, I have a warm and supportive family."

Herzog is the scion of a blue-blooded family. He is named after his grandfather, Rabbi Isaac Halevy Herzog, who was the Ashkenazi chief rabbi prior to Israel's statehood. His father, Chaim Herzog, was the sixth president of the state (from 1983 until 1993), and prior to that served as Israel's ambassador to the United Nations. His uncle was Abba Eban, a Mapai party leader and the foreign minister from 1966 to 1974 (Eban was married to Herzog's aunt Suzy, the sister of his mother, Aura Herzog). His other uncle was Yaakov Herzog, the director general of the Prime Minister's Office during the Levy Eshkol and Golda Meir administrations.

Buzi was the spoiled child. He has two older brothers. The oldest is Yoel, a businessman who is married to the daughter of the millionaire Nissim Gaon and lives abroad. Michael (Mike), an IDF brigadier-general who served as military secretary to defense ministers Eliahu Ben-Eliezer and Shaul Mofaz, is now abroad on sabbatical. And then there is Isaac's younger sister, Ronit, a psychologist.

The elder Herzog had a high opinion of his son Buzi. In his autobiography, "Living History: A Memoir," Chaim Herzog wrote: "Buzi had long ago become a very close friend, and our relationship has gone far beyond what one might expect of a father-and-son relationship."

Herzog confesses that his personal motivations are bound up in the family burden he bears. When asked what spurs him on, he answers: "I don't know, but there is a sort of very powerful internal motor that I carry on my back, perhaps from generations past. At times, I think I am a little screwed up in this regard."

Was it your father who encouraged you to go into politics?

"My father was a little wary of me getting into politics. He thought I wasn't built for the intrigues, the nonsense and the 'ill winds' of this profession, but he very much encouraged me to be involved in public life. As a young lad, when I was elected president of the student council in my school, he told me: 'I know that you want to go into politics. I know you've got the bug.' By the age of 16, when I was in school in New York, when my father was Israel's ambassador to the UN, I was already involved in political campaigning. He told me: 'You like politics. But first get a profession. Without a profession and without financial security, don't go into politics."

Your uncle Abba Eban was in politics for many years and occupied senior posts, and also experienced a lot of bitterness. Why do you need all this?

"I had two uncles in public life. Abba Eban, who had an astonishing record and became a household name worldwide, and Yaakov Herzog, whom David Ben-Gurion called 'Tzafnat Pane'ah [a name for Joseph, who became the second-in-command to Pharaoh], and who was director general of the Prime Minister's Office for a long time. Both of them suffered greatly from the political scheming and intrigues. Yaakov collapsed at an early age, from the Byzantine court of Golda Meir, after having had very senior status in the Eshkol administration. I also watched Abba Eban during the time of his political downward spiral, and his ouster from the Labor Party. I am not prepared to find myself in that kind of situation. So long as I can serve the public and provide leadership within the party for significant segments of the public, and influence historical processes that are shaping the face of the nation, I will do so."

Were you disappointed by the fact that although you placed first in the primaries, you only received the tourism portfolio?

"I could have demanded that the contest over the cabinet portfolios would be settled by the party's central committee. I'm sure that if that were the case, Ophir Pines and I would have been elected to the first couple of spots. But I made it clear that I was going to back Peretz. I don't feel hurt. I was delighted to receive the tourism portfolio. I like it. I am very pleased with it. I hope that I can leave my mark on the Ministry of Tourism just as I left my mark on the Ministry of Housing. I admit that I had aspired to be the foreign minister, or the justice minister, but it didn't help. We will have to wait for the next round."

Do you really believe you have the ability to make a significant contribution in shaping the face of the nation?

"Everyone knows I could have been earning 10 times as much if I had continued to pursue my profession as an attorney. Truthfully, I was at the high end of the legal sector, but I thank God for every day that I am serving the public. It sounds corny and trite, but people who know me know it is true. I am not capable of being apathetic to what is happening around me. The feeling of being on a mission is in my blood."

How far to you aspire to go in politics? What is your dream?

"I want to be in the cockpit, to influence. There are many jobs in the cockpit. There are several pilots. It is my intention to be part of the leadership echelon that influences the state. I want to be in the 'starting five players' and would be very happy to be in a meaningful, influential position that would shape the image of Israel for generations to come. Any statement that I might make beyond that now would be a mistake."

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