Reality Check: The Herzog makeover

In complete contrast to his image as the cautious lawyer, Isaac Herzog has dazzlingly disrupted the entire political ecosystem with the masterstroke of this election campaign.

Isaac Herzog‏
Like the star of a TV reality show, Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog is undergoing a makeover that is radically changing the way in which the general public perceives him and which could, against all the initial odds, propel him to the Prime Minister’s Office come March 17.
When Benjamin Netanyahu first called these unnecessary elections, the prime minister seemed a shoo-in for a fourth term as premier despite growing disillusionment with his leadership. Now Netanyahu’s grip on power is beginning to look increasingly shaky and there can be no guarantee that President Reuven Rivlin, who has more than a few old scores to settle with him, will call on Netanyahu to form the next government once the votes are counted.
So how has the Labor leader created this sudden turnaround, revitalizing a party that seemed in terminal decay? The first change was semantic: the deliberate dropping of his soft-sounding childhood nickname, “Bougie,” in favor of the more authoritative and harsher “Herzog.” At first, this did not come naturally. Radio interviewers and Labor Knesset members needed to keep correcting themselves mid-sentence as the nickname name slipped off their tongues, but within a few weeks a new political leadership brand was established: Herzog.
And then, in complete contrast to his image as the cautious lawyer, Herzog dazzlingly disrupted the entire political ecosystem with what is looking to be the masterstroke of this election campaign: Labor’s alliance with Tzipi Livni. At first, the details of this deal left analysts gasping in astonishment – in return for a partnership with a party that had only six Knesset members in the previous parliament, Herzog agreed to offer Livni the premiership under a rotation agreement should they form the next government.
The price is indeed high, but Herzog correctly realized that this was the only way for him to have a chance of saving the country and unseating Netanyahu. Last week’s opinion polls bear him out: all three television news channel surveys predict that the Herzog-Livni alliance will garner more seats than the Likud-led Netanyahu.
This is the first time that the polls have shown Herzog- Livni in the lead and, more importantly, they confirm a trend in which Herzog-Livni are steadily gaining while Netanyahu’s popularity continues to plummet.
The makeover then continued with the dropping of the Labor Party brand, whose appeal has been in constant decline over the past couple of decades, and the creation of the Zionist Camp, the new name for the Labor-Hatnua merger. Again, this is another example of clever marketing. Who doesn’t want to be a member of the Zionist Camp? Those on the far Left won’t vote for Labor anyway, while the real battle in these elections is for the fed-up center, center-right voters who, finally, have had enough of Netanyahu’s go-nowhere leadership. It also severely damages Netanyahu’s hoary old campaign strategy of portraying anybody to the left of him as a dangerous post-Zionist who wants to dismantle the Jewish state.
By choosing the Zionist Camp name, Herzog-Livni have immediately defanged Netanyahu’s venomous electioneering tactics.
BUT A makeover can only go so far. If there is no compelling reason to vote for the Zionist Camp, then even the most far-reaching cosmetic change will not bring Herzog into power. Having shown he has true leadership credentials by skilfully becoming a convincing challenger to Netanyahu, Herzog now has to offer the voters a new vision for the country.
In this, he is undoubtedly being helped by the current wave of police investigations into corruption at the heart of the political establishment. The probe into the activities of Yisrael Beytenu activists is now mushrooming into something larger with this weekend’s questioning of Israel Lands Authority director-general and Netanyahu ally Benzi Lieberman. The stench of corruption was one of the factors that brought down the Likud government of Yitzhak Shamir, and Netanyahu’s weakness for having his opulent lifestyle paid for by others is well known.
Shamir also fell from power because his hardline views concerning the peace process were seen as severely damaging Israel’s relationship with the United States.
Netanyahu too has presided over a dramatic deterioration in the ties between Washington and Jerusalem, and the lack of enthusiasm shown by French officials for his elbow-jostling appearance at the rally in Paris last week mirrors the rest of western Europe’s regard for our prime minister.
Herzog needs to capitalize on these trends and run on a campaign of clean government and improved relations with the outside world through renewed and honest negotiations with the Palestinians. But he also needs to take a leaf out of Yair Lapid’s election campaign book of two years ago and focus on Netanyahu’s real weak point: the high cost of living.
If Herzog can convince the electorate that he has a clear economic plan to reduce the high cost of living and bring down housing prices, then these elections will be his for the taking.
The writer is a former editor-in-chief of
The Jerusalem Post.