The Bougieman: Much Hope Rests on Small Shoulders of Isaac Herzog

Nobody thought for a second that Isaac 'Bougie' Herzog could win an election.

Asher Schechter
Asher Schechter
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Isaac Herzog
Isaac HerzogCredit: Tomer Appelbaum
Asher Schechter
Asher Schechter

Israel isn’t exactly a hotbed for come-from-behind political victories. Usually, the guy slated to win does win, whether it’s Benjamin Netanyahu, or Ehud Olmert before him, or Ariel Sharon before them.

Maybe Israel just doesn’t like underdogs. That makes Isaac "Bougie" Herzog, the eternal underdog of Israeli politics, who upped and won the Labor party primaries last month, all the more surprising.

Bougie is so low-key that no one, really, no one, gave him a fighting chance. Outgoing Labor head Shelly Yacimovich was so confident she’d just roll over him that days before the primaries, in a debate with Herzog in front of Arab party members, she said: “I don’t need you to vote for me, I’ll win anyway”.

Yet Herzog won by a landslide, leaving the moderate left-wing of Israeli politics to deal with two uneasy truths: 1. In ten years, Labor has had no less than five different leaders. Likud, on the other hand, had 5 chairmen since its foundation decades ago. Self-cannibalism is no way to reach the top, son. 2. Labor's fate now lies in the hands of Bougie Herzog, the most unlikely of leaders.

Pretty as a doll

How many Israelis would view Herzog as an authoritative personality? He is well-mannered, unassuming, soft-spoken (extremely so, to the point of self-parody) and though he did serve in the army, it wasn't in one of the elite combat units.

In the dog-eat-dog realm of Israeli politics, he is an unlikely survivor, kind of like a small animal that uses cunning and wit to survive in the dangerous jungle.

Labor Party chairwoman Shelly Yacimovich and her challenger, Isaac Herzog.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

Yet survivor he is, and also a scion of Israeli "royalty." Isaac is son of Chaim Herzog, Israel’s sixth president, nephew to Abba Eban (foreign minister 1966-1974), and grandson to Rabbi Isaac Herzog (former Ashkenazi chief rabbi), to name but a few of that illustrious clan. One could say that Herzog was born with every advantage possible and one would not be wrong.

But the child was, how to put it, unassuming. His mother pet-named him "Bougie" because, she said (to the Ynet website, no less) “he was pretty as a doll”.
In macho-driven Israeli society, the chances of a soft spoken lily-liver - even a blue-blooded soft spoken lily liver - to ascent to the highest levels are slim to none.

But Herzog had other talents beyond hairy-chested physical presence. He had a knack for politics.

A lawyer by trade (and former senior partner at Herzog, Fox & Ne’eman, one of the biggest law firms in Israel, co-founded by his dad), his legal skills proved instrumental in bringing Ehud Barak to the prime minister's seat in 1999. (It also got him in a lot of trouble with the law, in the so-called “Barak NGOs” scandal, in which he “pleaded the fifth.”)

But he was rewarded for his service, and appointed secretary of Barak’s short-lived cabinet. This earned him connections within the party that led him to be elected for the Knesset in 2003.

Che Guevara, not

As a politician, Herzog made a name for himself by always adhering to the party line. He was a skillful maneuver, an exemplary politician, but publicly, he was not exactly a star. Rather, he was seen as a grey, tepid politician. His gentle mannerisms translated into a political career in which he never, ever, took a risk of made a hard stance.

״I am not Che Guevara and I am not here to instigate a revolution”, he told Haaretz in 2007.

Israeli politics, as it turned out, needs passive yes-men as well. In 2005 he was made Minister of Housing and Building in Ariel Sharon’s government. In Ehud Olmert’s cabinet and later in Netanyahu’s second government he was made Minister of Social Affairs, a job he filled until 2011.

Some say he left an impression there, but since Social Affairs is Israeli politics’ dead-zone, it’s hard to tell.

All in all, it seemed as though he was destined for a mediocre political career. Only thing is, Bougie Herzog was very, very good at in-party politics. As the Labor leadership flailed, he gained strength within the party.

Shelly Yacimovich, on the other hand, was an aggressive, elbows-first political firecracker. But she wasn't very good at in-party politics.

It is tempting to say that with the victory of Isaac Herzog, the Israeli Labor party chose passiveness over struggle, opportunism over aggressively seizing the reigns. Many pundits have already said as much, predicting that within months Herzog will end Labor’s exile in opposition - much loathed within the party - and join Netanyahu's government.

But Herzog, for now at least, shows no sign of giving up his title as Head of Opposition.

“We will make Labor a big party again, a party that challenges the government,” he said in his victory speech.

Notice he didn’t say Labor will the “biggest” party or will “form the government”. Just “big” and “challenges”. One cannot say Isaac Herzog is not aware of his limitations.

And it seems his approach is working. In recent polls, Labor received 19 seats, 4 more than the current Knesset and well ahead of Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid.

Now ,the fate of Labor and that of the Israeli left and its dwindling chances of ever assuming power again rest on the slim shoulders of the most non-threatening politician in the history of Israel. Can he do it? Worst case scenario, Labor will dethrone him a year or two from now.

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