A number of years ago, in a live Kol Yisrael English News interview, I mistakenly introduced the current leader of the political opposition as Chaim Herzog.
“Certainly, you must mean Isaac,” he replied, on the radio broadcast.
Later in the day, I caught up with Labor – now Zionist Union – MK Herzog in the Knesset corridors. I apologized for calling him by his father’s name on live radio.
“It’s okay,” he replied, putting his arm around my shoulder. “I’ve been called worse.”
Indeed, identity and the image of a strong leader have remained elusive for the 55-year-old Herzog – even after taking the helm as Labor Party chairman.
His family name is still more associated with his grandfather Yitzhak Halevi Herzog – also known as Isaac Herzog – first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of the State of Israel, and his father, Chaim, whose titles included president, and before that, Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations.
In his capacity as UN ambassador, Chaim Herzog is probably best known for his dramatic address in which, from the podium, he tore up a copy of the resolution equating Zionism with racism, famously proclaiming: “For us, the Jewish people, this resolution based on hatred, falsehood and arrogance, is devoid of any moral or legal value. For us, the Jewish people, this is no more than a piece of paper and we shall treat it as such.”
But what a difference a generation can make. Days after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s address to the US Congress this past March, I had the occasion to appear before a number of US Jewish audiences from New York to California, and was told repeatedly: “We can’t even imagine Isaac Herzog being able to address the American people on the Iran deal in the convincing and dynamic manner that Netanyahu did.”
The results of the March 17 Knesset election, just a couple of weeks after Netanyahu’s congressional speech, presented a dilemma for Herzog. His party did well. Netanyahu’s Likud Party came away from the Knesset ballot with more seats than forecast in the preelection polls, but the improvement came at the expense of the nationalist Bayit Yehudi faction, and not of Herzog’s center-left Zionist Union bloc together with Tzipi Livni.
THAT WAS certainly the way that Herzog looked at it, and he was ready to join a unity government with Netanyahu.
Netanyahu and Herzog both wanted it. In Washington, the Obama administration was prodding – without, of course, getting involved in Israel’s internal affairs.
They all liked the sound of “Foreign Minister Isaac Herzog.” Outgoing foreign minister Avigdor Liberman knew it, and opted out of joining Netanyahu’s newest coalition.
So where was the dilemma? It was over Herzog’s shoulder. That’s where he’s been looking from the moment that he became Labor Party chairman a couple of years ago. There has been far too much opposition within the party to joining forces with a Netanyahu government.
Herzog brought the diplomatic issue back to the center of the Labor agenda after his predecessor Shelly Yacimovich stressed socioeconomic issues. Herzog’s decision to bring in Livni to form the joint Zionist Union list gave even more weight to the diplomatic agenda, but now he is stuck between Yacimovich and Livni.
Though he has not considered former foreign minister Livni a threat, Herzog’s role in presenting Israel’s case abroad during these days of stabbings in the streets has been curtailed by Livni’s trips and hasbara work, which he would have been doing if he had become foreign minister in this government.
Herzog also faces stiff competition from another opposition figure, Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid, who has taken his improved English to the airwaves of foreign news talk shows. He openly promotes a campaign to become prime minister, even as he stresses that there is unity in Israel at this time of violence.
All the while, Herzog’s head is spinning.
Again, he is unable to assert his identity. How can Livni and Lapid flaunt their English, when he is the one with the Anglo background? THE THREAT posed from Yacimovich remains both from the more socioeconomic forces in Labor, who have remained adamant in refusing to join Netanyahu as long as his government seemingly endlessly ponders the state budget bill, and from the more left-leaning elements in the party on the Palestinian issue.
From his perch in the opposition, Herzog has felt empowered by what he perceives as a bumbling Netanyahu government coalition that makes decisions and then reverses them on the run. People around him have convinced Herzog that maybe it wasn’t so bad, after all, that he didn’t join Netanyahu. This way, they argue, he won’t be labeled with the failures of the Netanyahu government, both economically and diplomatically.
Although the prime minister might give the impression that he thrives when on the brink, Herzog should know that it won’t be that much longer before he gets his chance to vie for the premiership again.
However, Herzog knows that first he faces a challenge within Labor. Can he be reelected as the party leader? He says that he is not another Ehud Barak who would even quit Labor in order to gain a senior cabinet portfolio.
But as he tries to exude confidence as opposition leader, Herzog ponders the future. He has already served in ministerial positions, and has received positive reviews for the jobs he did. He is certainly not the only senior politician to feel frustrations. Livni was so close to becoming prime minister in 2009.
In 2000, Netanyahu made a decision to put off a bid to run for prime minister, and it meant several more years in the political wilderness before he would return to the Prime Minister’s Office.
Herzog doesn’t know if he will get that chance to sit in the prime minister’s chair. In the meantime, though, he looks for the opportunities, and tries to make the wise moves. At the end of the day, the grandson of the chief rabbi and son of the president and UN ambassador hopes that he will no longer be called by the wrong first name on live radio broadcasts, and that he himself will be worthy of claiming the premiership. The writer is a political and diplomatic correspondent at Kol Yisrael’s English Radio News.