Buji makes his move

Yitzhak Herzog takes on Shelly Yachimovich for the top spot in Labor.

Shelly Yachimovich and Isaac Herzog watch election ads 370 (photo credit: Shai Skiff)
Shelly Yachimovich and Isaac Herzog watch election ads 370
(photo credit: Shai Skiff)
FOR THE past several months Yitzhak (Buji) Herzog has been crisscrossing the country telling Labor voters that the incumbent Shelly Yacimovich has been a resounding failure as party leader and that he is the person best qualified to replace her.
Herzog maintains that Yacimovich has taken the once glorious party of power and turned it into a minor niche player, focused almost exclusively on wages, prices and a crusade against big business. Yacimovich, who in her two years at the helm has built a strong cadre of inner party support, counters that Herzog lacks drive and direction and would not be able to carry the party to new heights.
On November 21, in a nationwide primary, the party’s 60,000 registered members will get to choose between two very different leadership styles and visions for the party’s future.
Yacimovich, 53, just six months older than Herzog, has done all she can to create an uneven playing field. She refused to allow a new membership drive in which the challenger could have brought in fresh forces to back him and she called the election early giving him less time to organize.
Still, Herzog is convinced he can win.
The main evidence he presents to back his claim is an in-depth survey by leading pollster Camille Fuchs at the start of the campaign in August. The key question put to a sample of 800 people was how they would vote if Knesset Members Eitan Cabel and Erel Margalit, (who commissioned the poll), pulled out of the race and backed Herzog. The result was a dead heat between the remaining candidates – Herzog and Yacimovich – 44 percent each, with 12 percent undecided. A second poll in early October, with Cabel and Margalit now firmly in Herzog’s corner, produced another dead-heat. “More and more key people are joining me by the day,” Herzog tells The Jerusalem Report. “Among the rank and file there is a sense that Yacimovich has reached the limit of her vote-getting potential on the national stage and that I could do better.”
But among Labor’s 15 Knesset Members, besides Cabel and Margalit, Herzog has not picked up any new support. Yacimovich has the backing of the other 11, a telltale sign of where the smart insider money is. Herzog, however, insists that he has major support outside the Knesset, in the Histadrut Labor Federation, the kibbutzim, the moshavim, the inner cities and among Arab and Druze voters. He says Ofer Eini, the powerful Histadrut boss who has a strained relationship with Yacimovich, is tending toward him, and that Moshavim Movement Secretary Meir Tzur and influential Labor veterans like former finance minister Avraham (Beige) Shochat are already on board.
The “x-factor” could be the relatively large group of former Amir Peretz supporters.
Peretz, a former party leader, defected to Justice Minister Tzipi Livni’s dovish Hatnua after a bitter clash with Yacimovich in the run-up to the 2013 national election.
Many of the people he left behind in Labor strongly resent Yacimovich and what they see as her high-handed leadership style.
IN THE leadership election, which brought Yacimovich to power in September 2011, Peretz was her main rival. In the first round, in which no candidate polled the 40 percent minimum necessary for victory, Yacimovich won 32.2 percent of the vote, Peretz 30.9 percent, Herzog 24.6 percent and Amram Mitzna, another former party leader who also later defected to Hatnua, 11.9 percent. In the second round run-off between the two top candidates Yacimovich comfortably defeated Peretz by 53.8 percent to 45.5 percent. Just before the first round Herzog approached Mitzna urging him to join forces. Had Mitzna pulled out of the race and backed him, Herzog reckons he would have made it to the run-off against Yacimovich and may well have won.
In a wide-ranging interview with The Report, the slightly-built, blue-eyed, deceptively young-looking Herzog, characteristically dapper and restrained, speaks softly. But his criticism of Yacimovich’s time in office is scathing.
Her cardinal sin, in his view, was to neglect the issue of peace with the Palestinians.
This cost Labor dearly in the 2013 national election, and, worse, ran counter to the national interest – two states for two peoples to secure the Zionist vision of a Jewish and democratic Israel. “She naively thought that by pandering to the settlers, she could carry the national religious vote. However, at the moment of truth, they supported Naftali Bennett’s Bayit Yehudi and we lost much of the peace vote to Meretz, Kadima and Hatnua,” he asserts.
Herzog argues that, in a more fundamental sense, the low priority Yacimovich accords to the peace process stems from a narrow and misguided view of social justice – that Israel should first resolve its domestic socioeconomic issues and only then turn to peacemaking. In Herzog’s view, the two are intimately connected and there can be no genuine social justice in Israel as long as the Palestinians remain under Israeli rule.
“It’s a very superficial form of social justice that ignores the fact that at the roadblocks, just a few hundred yards away, there is no equality,” he declares quoting Tel Aviv University social activist Yuval Elbashan.
And although Yacimovich’s focus has been almost exclusively on the socioeconomic, Herzog contends that here, too, her vision has been far too narrow.
“She hasn’t spoken about the elderly and the disabled. She has hardly said anything about poverty,” he complains. Moreover, he charges that by focusing so shrilly on her campaign against big business, she alienated a huge reservoir of potential business and middle-class voters. “Shelly Yacimovich locked Labor into a tiny niche and many people who would normally form the core of our support just couldn’t take it anymore,” he laments.
HERZOG SAYS if he wins he will remake Labor into the truly national party it always was historically, with clear positions on all major issues on the national agenda, from peacemaking, through religion and state to Jewish-Arab relations in Israel proper.
Second, he says he intends to present a genuine governing alternative by forming a united front of center-left parties and public bodies led by Labor. Third, he would advocate a return to the mixed economy based on what he says was “Labor’s unique ability to include under its wing both private business and public enterprise, the party’s tried and tested formula for economic success on the national level.” With these policies he reckons he would be able to bring a wide spectrum of lost voters back to the party.
“Yesh Atid under Yair Lapid is crumbling,” he says by way of example.
“It has only about half the support it had on election day. Most of the disaffected voters are going over to Meretz, some to the Likud and, under Yacimovich, Labor is hardly picking up any of this potential new support. I am convinced that I would be able to win over Yesh Atid and other middle-class voters.”
One of the big black marks against Herzog’s candidacy is that he lacks charisma. That he is not the man to stir the masses, not someone who would be electable on the national stage. Herzog rejects the charge with a quiet smile. “I think the Israeli public is a bit fatigued by all the TV stars like Yair Lapid, who come to politics with no real experience, no real knowledge of the complexity of the national issues we face, and would prefer people who are serious – people who know how to get things done,” he counters.
IN ANNOUNCING his candidacy in late August, Herzog took the charisma bull by the horns. “I know I am not a star. I am a doer,” he said, pointing to the fact that he has been cabinet secretary, run five government ministries and served nearly seven years in the security cabinet – garnering high praise for his performances in office. “I know for a fact that I enjoy a lot of public affection from people in all walks all of Israeli life,” Herzog asserts. “True, people are not sure that I can be a leader. But I will show them that I am capable of being the leader.”
Yacimovich’s central campaign barb against Herzog is that, if elected, the first thing he will do is crawl into government on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s terms and destroy Labor in the process.
She claims that after inheriting the party at its lowest ebb – it had only eight Knesset Members after her predecessor Ehud Barak bolted to form Atzma’ut, a five-member splinter faction whose only purpose was to help him stay on in government as defense minister – she reshaped its institutions, injected new energy and produced a young, dynamic cadre imbued with self-belief and no longer obsessed with being in government. Voting for Herzog, she says, would be a retrograde step, taking Labor back to what it used to be: a vague supermarket of ideas, clinging to government at all costs.
Herzog flatly denies the charges, but is careful not to be too critical of Netanyahu. He argues that, under Yacimovich, Labor could never be more than a strident appendage, whereas, under his leadership, it could once again become the party of government. He also criticizes her closed leadership style, asserting that although her decision not to join Netanyahu’s government in March may have been correct, it was made alone, without discussion of or consultation on the terms she was offered.
As part of his bid to project a genuine leadership alternative to both Yacimovich and Netanyahu, Herzog has taken highprofile and sometimes proactive positions on the big strategic issues of the day. In early October, he met Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, declaring afterwards that he was convinced that, in Abbas, Israel has a genuine partner for peace. In Herzog’s view, now is “one of those rare moments in which a peace deal with the Palestinians is possible,” and, because of the current regional instability, Israel should get the deal done before the opportunity is lost.
He says he knows many people believe there has been a cooling off on the Palestinian track on Netanyahu’s part but that he is prepared to give the prime minister the benefit of the doubt.
If, however, Netanyahu fails to take the chance for peace, he will be judged harshly by history and by the Israeli people – who might then look to Labor to conduct a more productive peace process the way they did when they chose Yitzhak Rabin to replace the stonewalling Yitzhak Shamir as prime minister in the early 1990s.
HERZOG IS also playing a behind-thescenes role in the Syrian crisis, where he has been in touch with a wide array of Syrian opposition leaders in France, the United States, Turkey and Bulgaria. “It started by accident,” he notes. “As I was the minister in charge of humanitarian aid to Gaza during the Cast Lead operation in 2008-9, I got to know some humanrights organizations and they exposed me to Syrian opposition leaders.” He argues that the US made a major strategic blunder in not backing the rebels from the outset, when there would have been a chance for a major strategic transformation in the region by toppling the Assad regime and smashing the anti-Western, Iranian-led axis before the jihadists moved in.
If they come to power, Herzog says the Syrian opposition people he is in touch with would want to expel the jihadists, and establish a multicultural secular democracy.
They would also be ready to reach an accommodation with Israel. “They tell me there are many things on which they don’t agree with us, but that they would be ready to negotiate peace,” he says.
Herzog was born in September 1960 into one of Israel’s most distinguished families.
His Irish-born father Chaim Herzog was the 6th state president, his grandfather Yitzhak Halevy Herzog the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi, his uncle Ya’akov Herzog a director of the Prime Minister’s Office, his uncle by marriage Abba Eban the country’s most accomplished foreign minister, and his brother Brig.-Gen. (ret.) Mike Herzog a defense ministry chief of staff.
Herzog grew up in the up-market Tel Aviv suburb of Zahala, served in army intelligence and studied law at Tel Aviv University and Cornell. He could have been a wealthy partner in Herzog, Fox and Neeman, one of the biggest commercial law firms in the country. But given his family background, the call to public service was irresistible, a kind of noblesse oblige. At 39, he was cabinet secretary under Ehud Barak, and in the space of eight years went on to hold five ministerial portfolios, Housing, Tourism, Diaspora Relations and the Fight against Anti-Semitism, Social Welfare and Public Broadcasting. The one blot on his meteoric career was a charge of funneling campaign funds through straw companies for Barak, from which he was eventually cleared for lack of evidence, after he controversially invoked the right to silence.
When Labor members go to the polls in November they will, to a large extent, be choosing between opposites. Yacimovich, who comes from working-class stock – her father was a bricklayer – is a feisty, stubborn and strong-willed soloist; Herzog, a labor movement aristocrat, is a mildmannered, reliable and competent team player. He says he admires the leadership style of Levi Eshkol, the easygoing, laidback prime minister who succeeded the flamboyant David Ben-Gurion. “Eshkol,” says Herzog, “was renowned for his ability to unite and reconcile and to get the people around him to work as a team.”
But, in this day and age, can someone as bland as Herzog be elected, especially in a country as tempestuous as Israel? Will he get the chance to introduce a more relaxed, problem-solving leadership style? And if he does, will he have the gumption to take the tough decisions that come with the job? With so much in the Middle East in flux, the little considered November vote could have far-reaching consequences.