Elections 2015: Netanyahu’s Killer Instinct vs. Herzog’s Revenge of the Nerds

To become the next prime minister, the Labor leader needs to overcome the Israeli public’s predilection for tough guys.

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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Labor leader Isaac Herzog (left) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Knesset, July 24, 2014.
Labor leader Isaac Herzog (left) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Knesset, July 24, 2014.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

In the 1984 cult classic Revenge of the Nerds, actor Curtis Armstrong plays one of the main characters. His screen name is Dudley Dawson, and his nickname, for reasons that soon become obvious, is “Booger.”

Ironically, the origin of the Israeli equivalent of nerd, which is khnoon, comes from the same nasal source as Booger’s, according to Hebrew linguist and writer Rubik Rosenthal. In Moroccan the word khnuna means a cold while the word khnana, you will excuse me, is snot. And just as “snot-nosed kid” came to also mean a scorned, unworldly child in English, khnanot and khnoon evolved into the Hebrew equivalents of nerds, geeks, dweebs and dorks.

The word khnoon is in vogue now because of the ascendance of Labor Party leader Yitzhak/Isaac Herzog, who is widely considered to be a relatively nerdish politician, at least by Israeli standards, or as Jeffrey Goldberg called him at the recent Saban Forum: “a non-charismatic figure.” The Likud’s Zeev Elkin had Herzog’s dweeby image in mind when he captioned the Labor leader’s recent merger and rotation agreement with Tzipi Livni as “The Beauty and the Geek."

Herzog’s troubles start with his widely-used nickname Bougie, which he is now trying to discard: while the nickname is actually pronounced Booji and has no connection to the abovementioned Booger, its origin is Herzog’s mother’s combination of the French "poupée" and the Hebrew "buba." Even in more enlightened societies than Israel, it’s not a great idea for male prime ministers to be addressed as "doll." According to press reports, Herzog is also taking lessons on appearing more assertive and on bringing down his often high-pitched voice an octave or two.

The conventional wisdom, which has yet to be disproven, is that Israel and Israelis aren’t ready for a nerdy prime minister. In fact, I myself once concocted a “killer principle” that postulates that in a faceoff between two Israeli candidates for prime minister, the one who is more of a "killer" – another Israeli slang word, pronounced "keeler," which denotes a ruthless tough guy and does not necessitate actually taking the lives of others – is the one who will invariably win.

The principle has held true in all the elections since I started counting: Irgun leader Menachem Begin was definitely more of a “killer” than Shimon Peres (1977), as was Lehi leader Yitzhak Shamir (1984, 1988); then came Yitzhak Rabin, who, with all due respect to Shamir, had been in the business since 1948 and was the 1967 Chief of Staff (1992); and then Netanyahu, whose Sayeret Matkal exploits were enough to kill off Peres once again (1996); then it was Barak, another ex-chief of staff who had the added bonus of having personally participated in daring assassination raids (1999), then Sharon, the ultimate “keeler” in every way imaginable, for whom Barak was no match (2001), never mind the soft-spoken IDF general Amram Mitzna (2003) who replaced him as Labor leader. Then Olmert rode on Sharon’s stroke-tails to beat another non-killer Amir Peretz (2006), and then it was Netanyahu against Tzipi Livni, who, despite the effort to buttress her killer-credentials with rumors of lethal exploits during her stint in the Mossad, ultimately lost to Netanyahu in 2009, as did Shelly Yacimovich, a former radio host whose sharp tongue did not save her from crushing defeat (2013).

The emergence of the killer principle seems to be an outgrowth of the Six Day War as well as the more personalized politics of the television era, which, in Israel, began one year later. Prior to that, Israel had some nerdy prime ministers, including Moshe Sharett who replaced Ben Gurion in 1953: He was a dandy by the standards of those days, a stickler for proper Hebrew, a champion of conciliation with the Arabs and a critic of the then-immensely popular retaliation raids against Arab Fedayeen. But Sharett led Israel for less than two years, and admitted to himself at the time that he wasn’t cut out for the “deceit and recklessness that are apparently necessary to lead this country.”

Levi Eshkol, a former finance minister with a heavy Polish accent in Hebrew, was also considered pretty nerdy when he became prime minister in 1963, especially after Ben Gurion finished deriding him, as he did Sharett, as a spineless leader who couldn’t be trusted to safeguard Israel’s security. Eshkol’s infamous “stuttering speech” which induced national panic on the eve of the Six Day War seemed to confirm Ben Gurion’s prognosis, and Eshkol was forced to appoint the brash Moshe Dayan as defense minister: from that point onwards, the die was cast. Eshkol is now considered to have been one of Israel’s finest prime ministers, but ever since he was replaced after his death by Golda Meir – whom Ben Gurion described as “the best man in the cabinet” – the tougher-seeming prime ministerial candidate has always won. As the Likud slogan put it plainly in the previous elections: "A strong prime minister means a strong Israel."

Herzog was a major in the Israeli Intelligence Corps and even spent some time in the field on loan to the Shin Bet, but if he has to go up against most of the other candidates on a mano-a-mano basis he is likely to lose. So, by the way, might Netanyahu, who has shed much of his macho luster in recent years and now seems to many to be a pushover. Both Avigdor Lieberman, former bar bouncer and strongman extraordinaire, as well as Naftali Bennett, who combines army service in top secret reconnaissance units with proven achievements in modern Israel’s most coveted “front lines” – multi-million dollar hi-tech exits – could prove more attractive than Netanyahu to many right-wing voters.

But Herzog shouldn’t go too far in trying to shed his nerdish credentials, because there is only so much makeover that one can do so close to elections and, more importantly, because times have changed. If Hollywood glossies can now advertise the city’s “hottest celebrity nerds” and techies and geeks have quickly moved up the social totem pole, perhaps Israel can reassess its leadership priorities as well. Herzog’s egalitarian union with Livni has been subjected to heaps of scorn by rival politicians as well as seasoned analysts, but the Labor leaders may be on to something that their crusty critics are not: among the leftist-centrist voters that Herzog is competing for, macho may be out, thoughtful dorkism could be on its way in, and viewing women as equal partners is nothing to be ashamed of.

Remember, in the [admittedly vulgar] original, the nerds of the Lambda Lambda Lambda fraternity ultimately beat the jocks of Alpha Beta, got all the girls and finished the movie with “We Are the Champions” by Queen. As the tag line for the film says: “They've been laughed at, picked on and put down. But now it's time for the odd to get even! Their time has come!”


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