It’s Monday evening in the Knesset and only a few hours since former of welfare and social services minister Isaac Herzog officially handed over his portfolio to Moshe Kahalon, but already the Labor stalwart is worried.
“I’m sure that Kahalon will do his best to come forward with items that are important, and he might get some support from Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu but, overall, social issues will now be tackled by way of lip service only,” states Herzog, as we sit together in his new, much smaller parliamentary office surrounded by yet-to-be unpacked cardboard boxes.
“The Likud has shown little interest in social issues over past few years and with the Treasury being the same Treasury and the prime minister being the same prime minister, I’m very skeptical whether there will be a coherent, in-depth, proactive agenda for social issues that will be forwarded by this government.”
Herzog’s passion for social issues comes through in almost every part of our interview – from the reasons that first inspired him as a teenager to be interested in society’s weaker populations to the professionals and volunteers he left behind at the ministry this week and on to the plans he has to raise the crumbling Labor Party from its ashes and rebuild a true Labor platform on the basis of civil society and concern for social issues.
“Ehud Barak could not give a damn about these issues,” says Herzog. “He was hypocritical and social issues did not matter to him in the least, not a hoot.
[Barak] did not raise his flag in the government; he never created a coalition crisis about these issues. I repeatedly said to him: ‘Ehud, why don’t you make brinkmanship on something social?’ He would say: ‘No, no, no, I can only do it on something that is relating to peace,’ but even that he did not do.”
According to Herzog, Barak left his fellow Labor ministers alone in the coalition to advocate for social change and speak out for the rights of all the country’s citizens.
“Binyamin Ben-Eliezer [former minister of industry, trade and labor] and I carried almost all the social issues on our shoulders,” says Herzog, a hint of bitterness in his voice. “We dealt with unemployment, with needs of society’s weaker segments and on the issue of the Arabs here. We were the linchpin of social issues in the government and now that we are out of the coalition, this agenda will be shunned aside.
“Despite Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu saying nice words about dealing with these issues, we all know that words don’t count. What counts is not what you say but what you do. I already said it in my farewell speech last week – this is the kind of work that does not attract much public attention but it does bring results.”
INDEED, DURING his four years as minister, Herzog, 50, managed to raise the profile of social issues in a way that almost no other politician was able to do previously. Within days of taking over the office in 2007, he changed the name from Social Affairs Ministry to Welfare and Social Services, thereby broadening its scope and raising its credibility. He went on tirelessly to research and understand a wide range of issues affecting almost all segments of the population, including children at risk, the plight of Holocaust survivors, single mothers and people with disabilities.
As well as supporting the social workers through their current pay dispute with the Treasury, Herzog also managed to tack an additional NIS 1.2 billion onto the ministry’s budget, allowing for more employees and adding new services.
Among programs created during his time as minister was a national plan
to reach children at risk, including draft legislation to improve
information sharing between all authorities; a program to encourage the
inclusion of people with disabilities in the workforce; and certain tax
breaks for working single mothers, which was implemented in 2007.
“There were also many individual stories that touched me on a daily
basis while I was working as minister,” recalls Herzog, who often made a
point of taking on the plight of ordinary people treated unfairly by
“I was proud to complete four years in that office. No other minister ever stayed there that long and there was not one stone that I left unturned.”
Referring to Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist Viktor E. Frankel’s
book Man’s Search for Meaning, Herzog says: “This job gave me a real
sense of purpose that I have never enjoyed as much before, even though
there were ups and downs and often it felt like the work was 24 hours a
day, seven days a week.
“The problem now is that I’m still experiencing a huge wave of emotions
about moving on, because the world of social welfare absorbed my being
from the day I started. I’m really having a mixture of feelings right
now, because I already have to be focused on my next agenda or target.
“But after my farewell ceremony from the ministry on Sunday, my wife
turned to me and said, ‘Look, even if you retire now from public life,
you still left your mark, and your grandmother, Rabbinit Sarah Herzog,
has been looking down on you from above and is very proud.’ “I feel like
I left a better system there than what I found when I first arrived,”
continues Herzog. “I still remember walking into my office at the
ministry and seeing a pile of dust on the table because there had been
no minister at the office for three years. I remember cleaning it all
myself and teaching everyone around me that we have to start from
STARTING FROM scratch again is what Herzog says he is about to do as he moves forward.
“This is exactly what I have done here today,” he smiles, gesturing to
the cardboard boxes stacked in one corner of the tiny Knesset office. “I
went looking for a room, helped bring in the boxes, had to order a new
cellphone and set everything up myself. I’m operating as though it’s
post earthquake, and the first thing you do after an earthquake is check
on your loved ones and then find electricity and water. This is what I
am doing right now.”
Herzog’s analogy might not be so far-fetched.
According to his version of events from the past two weeks, Barak and
four other MKs staged a “coup d’etat,” in the Labor Party, breaking away
to form Atzmaut (independence).
“I had to quit, not out of my own desire to quit but from a realistic
analysis that Netanyahu would remove me from office” after the political
split, he says. “It actually gave me a sense of freedom from the
deadlock that we have been in for a while.”
Admitting that he now has his sights on the Labor Party leadership,
Herzog adds: “Barak, in my mind, did not stand for the principles of
Labor although he did try to push for the peace process. I concurred
with some of his positions and I supported him, but he did not go all
the way, preferring his own benefits to the good of his party and the
movements that brought him to power.
“The test now is whether Barak and the prime minister can justify this
maneuver and in someway deliver a breakthrough in the peace process. I
can’t see how they could do this, how they will be able to find a
majority on giving up land or dividing sensitive areas. Nothing has
changed for the prime minister, he is simply a weaker leader on the
issue of peace.”
Herzog says he intends to focus on rebuilding Labor as the “core of the
center-left camp and an alternative to the Likud and Kadima. Labor still
has an important place. There is a yearning from the public to see us
up and running. We are flooded by e-mails and messages from people who
want to join us and see a return to where we used to be.”
Herzog, who recently published his second book, Working Plan: A Recipe
for Social Welfare
, which emphasizes social welfare issues along side
tackling Palestinian-related issues, concludes: “I plan to bring in new
members, young people and leaders from civil society. I truly believe
that now is the time for people who want to raise the social flag and
agenda – not, of course, in a Marxist or Leninist way – but in a party
that unites the nation and shows concern for closing social gaps or has a
firm social agenda.”