Politics: Herzog’s hurdles

The son of the late president has overcome adversity in his bid to head the Labor Party in which he grew up, but he still has many obstacles.

herzog slogan (photo credit: Omer Messinger)
herzog slogan
(photo credit: Omer Messinger)
Life might have been so much easier for Labor leadership candidate Isaac Herzog had the party’s regulations allowed its No. 2 man to succeed the party chairman upon his departure.
Immediately after the January press conference in which Defense Minister Ehud Barak announced he was leaving Labor, Herzog, who won the second slot on the party’s Knesset slate, could have gone straight to the party’s headquarters at the Beit Berl Teachers College in Kfar Saba and taken command.
Instead, he has had to endure a lengthy race against four candidates that keeps him out on the campaign trail late into the night and up early in the morning.
He has had to put up with political spin that has crowned two of his rivals, and he has had to schlep through a legal process over the party’s controversial membership drive that has stretched on for months and mired a potentially interesting race in boring technicalities.
In an interview at his Knesset office, the MK appeared tired and somewhat tense. He paced back and forth in the small room as he delivered his answers, switching back and forth between Hebrew and flawless English. He was on top of every issue, brutally honest, and clearly fully aware that he was in the middle of the key political battle of his career.
“It’s my life,” Herzog said when asked whether the political world was wearing him down. “I want to be at the beach with my wife and kids. I love serving the nation and meeting the people. But whoever tells you it’s fun is wrong.”
Herzog, 50, grew up in the Labor Party as the son of the late president Chaim Herzog. He headed one of the country’s most successful law firms and served as cabinet secretary before entering politics. Once one of the men closest to Barak, he ended up being partly responsible for the defense minister’s departure from the party and the launching of the race he is in now.
He outlasted Barak and bypassed MK Avishay Braverman, who at one point looked like his most serious challenger. But Herzog has several hurdles ahead of the September 12 primary race against MKs Amir Peretz and Shelly Yacimovich, former party chairman Amram Mitzna and venture capitalist Erel Margalit.
He devoted much of the interview to criticizing Yacimovich, who may be his main obstacle en route to the Labor chairmanship. After Peretz brought in the most members in the drive, the race focused on who would face off against him in an expected run-off race between the top two finishers on September 21.
The media focus on Yacimovich’s niche of social affairs since the tent protests began has given momentum to her at Herzog’s expense. A Channel 2 poll of questionable accuracy (due to irregularities in the polling and voting data) crowned her as the front-runner, leaving Herzog to play catch-up, even if in reality he may have just as much chance of winning as she or Peretz does.
“My criticism of Shelly is professional, not personal,” he said. “She has never managed anything, not even the va’ad bayit [committee of her apartment building]. She is a good speaker with no leadership skills. And she is a soloist, not a team player.”
Herzog said Yacimovich had a track record in the Knesset of supporting legislation from other parties while opposing bills proposed by her Labor colleagues.
He said she tried to have her cake and eat it, too, by criticizing the party’s participation in the government while using her status as a coalition MK to pass her own bills.
But he saved his harshest criticism for her seeming lack of a viewpoint on key issues like the diplomatic process, religious pluralism and Diaspora affairs.
“Shelly refuses to deal with war and peace,” he said.
“She refuses to reveal her opinion on borders, the right of return, Jerusalem and other issues. Someone who wants to lead Labor must have answers on these issues.”
Herzog warned that due to the animosity between Yacimovich and Peretz, if either were elected, the party would split in two for the second time in under a year.
“The average Labor member doesn’t like to hear about elbows being shoved at each other, but in elections you have to tell the truth,” he said. “If either Shelly or Amir wins, the other will secede. That would deal a blow to Labor at a time when there is hope for the next election.”
Herzog called upon Mitzna – who has been quoted as saying he would have a tough time serving under Peretz or Yacimovich – to quit the race and join him as his No. 2. He said Mitzna should realize that he was stronger in key sectors and that they should pool their resources.
“Mitzna had potential and failed when he chaired the party, and he has weakened substantially since entering the race,” Herzog said. “Both of us are viewed as responsible candidates who can work together and unify the party. It’s the moment of truth for Mitzna to keep the party united by joining me in a team as my partner.”
Asked whether the focus’s turning away from socioeconomic issues in the past week could help him at Yacimovich’s expense, Herzog said he refused to see it that way.
“Since Zionism began, the pendulum has shifted between diplomatic, security and socioeconomic issues, so Labor must wave all those flags,” he said. “The social upheaval will not fade away. It has been imprinted on the public’s psyche. It will have a major impact on the next general election, impair [Prime Minister Binyamin] Netanyahu substantially, and give Labor a unique opportunity.”
Herzog has visited 15 protest tent cities across the country. He told protesters about the book he’d published in December warning about ghettos of poverty, the unanswered letter he’d written Netanyahu ahead of Yom Kippur urging immediate action, and the prophetic speech he’d made at the Herzliya Conference shortly after he’d quit his job as welfare and social services minister. In that speech, he’d lamented that Netanyahu was not doing enough to provide proper housing, education and health services for the middle class, and predicted a million people marching in Rabin Square for housing and living expenses.
“I suggest that the prime minister and finance minister lift their heads from their Excel spreadsheets and take into account the public pressure that I am sure will come,” he said five months before the protest began. “If they don’t, this will become the foremost issue on the public’s agenda and will turn things upside-down.”
On diplomatic issues, Herzog is the only candidate who has published a diplomatic plan, which New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof has called shrewd.
The plan calls for Israel to vote in favor of declaring a Palestinian state in the UN next month as long as the international community compels the Palestinians to negotiate with Netanyahu and the resolution leaves the border issue for the talks. Herzog said such a move would prevent a clash in September and a potential uprising of thousands of young Palestinians.
He believes in land swaps and annexing settlement blocs and holy sites as part of a deal with the PA.
Herzog called Netanyahu’s approach to September “defeatist and unimaginative” and said that had the prime minister been more innovative and far-sighted on the diplomatic front, he might have had more leeway in attacking Israel’s enemies in the Gaza Strip this week.
It is possible that just like the tent protests gave a boost to Yacimovich because she was identified with the issues they raised, diplomatic problems ahead of the UN vote on a Palestinian state could help out Herzog – seen as a statesman like his father, who tore up the “Zionism is racism” resolution as UN ambassador.
“If Labor can elect a leader who can unify the party and be identified with both diplomatic and social affairs, such as your humble servant, it can stand a chance in the next election,” he said. “I believe I can bring Labor an impressive result of at least 18 mandates. That wouldn’t mean forming the next government, but it would allow us to aim to do that in the election after that.”