TEL AVIV (JTA) – Isaac Herzog paces slowly up and down the stage, one hand in his suit pocket, a slight smile forming through his slender lips.
Quietly, his heavy breath audible through the microphone, the centre-left candidate for prime minister runs down a detailed a list of policy reforms, almost never changing his tone or raising his voice. Even when he builds toward an early crescendo – telling the crowd “I intend to win” – it sounds more like a policy analysis than a rallying cry.
It’s a stark contrast to his opponents in the Israeli elections later this month, and Herzog knows it. When an audience member mentions right wing Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, who had gesticulated and grinned and filled the room with his voice during an appearance before the same forum several days earlier, Herzog cut off the question.
“And he was flamboyant and everything was simple,” Herzog said sarcastically, addressing an auditorium of English-speakers Sunday night at a series called the Tel Aviv International Salon. “And he will annex 100,000 Palestinians and they will have [Israeli] IDs and they will all be loyal to the flag.”
Herzog, who leads the Zionist Union slate, is the leading contender to replace Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu when Israelis go to the polls on March 17. But his campaign represents a change not just of substance, but of style.
Herzog is soft-spoken, focused on building consensus domestically and strengthening ties internationally. Netanyahu is vociferous, presenting himself as an uncompromising leader willing to stand up even to Israel’s closest allies.
“All parts of our society are simmering from within, are asking questions, are debating,” Herzog said Sunday. “My role as a leader is to unite everyone, bring them together to a common denominator; give them a sense of purpose and hope.”
Herzog’s detractors – Netanyahu chief among them – say this tendency is a weakness. Netanyahu’s ads claim Herzog will “capitulate to terror” and question whether he’s fit to lead a country beset by threats. Herzog’s quiet demeanour may also be costing him with voters accustomed to an outspoken prime minister. Though his party has been running neck-and-neck with Netanyahu’s Likud atop the polls, a recent Times of Israel survey found that one-fifth of likely voters either had no opinion of Herzog or hadn’t even heard of him. Herzog’s nickname – the diminutive “Bougie” – doesn’t help.
“He lacks charisma,” said Eytan Gilboa, a public opinion expert and senior research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. “There are people who are better and worse on screen. He’s less good. He doesn’t demonstrate enough strength and charisma, so he’s taken as someone who can’t be right for this position.”
Herzog was born in 1960 to Israeli political royalty. His grandfather, Yitzhak HaLevi Herzog, was the country’s first chief rabbi, and his father, Chaim Herzog, its sixth president. Like Netanyahu, Herzog attended high school in the United States, graduating from New York’s Ramaz School while his father was Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations.
Classmate Shira Dicker recalled Herzog as boyish yet sophisticated, once identifying her Chanel No. 5 perfume by scent as she walked down the hallway.
“He was an aristocratic young man,” Dicker said. “He was freckle-faced and fresh-faced. Who is surprised that he ended up where he is right now? He was diplomatic in a great way. He was a natural. He was to the manner born.”
Herzog served as an officer in the elite 8200 intelligence unit and then studied law, rising to become partner at Herzog, Fox & Ne’eman, a major Tel Aviv firm founded by his father. He became cabinet secretary to Labor prime minister Ehud Barak in 1999, where he became embroiled in a campaign finance investigation and escaped charges by invoking his right to remain silent. He was first elected to the Knesset with Labor in 2003, and has since served as Israel’s tourism minister, welfare minister and housing minister.
After Labor’s disappointing third-place showing in the 2013 election, he won the party primary in an upset. When the current campaign began, Herzog boosted Labor’s middling poll standing by merging lists with former justice minister Tzipi Livni’s centre-left Hatnuah party to form the Zionist Union. The two leaders agreed, should they win, to each serve as prime minister for two years – a deal that, according to Herzog’s opponents, shows spinelessness.
A tough exterior has been a prerequisite for left wing politicians to win in Israel. If he becomes prime minister, Herzog will be the first Labor candidate since 1969 to do so without first serving as defense minister or Israel Defense Forces chief of staff.
“The nation accepts Bibi’s thesis that before talking about quality of life, you talk about life – that security issues are the most important,” said Arye Mekel, a veteran Israeli diplomat and former adviser to Likud prime minister Yitzhak Shamir. “Can a Labor man who doesn’t have an extensive security background become prime minister? That’s an interesting question.”
Several of Herzog’s colleagues, when asked, could not name a major piece of legislation he spearheaded while in the Knesset. Instead, they say, he will achieve results by finding common ground among powerful rivals.
“Herzog is the kind of guy that can work with other strong people,” said Labor lawmaker Erel Margalit, who supported Herzog’s bid to become party chairman. “That’s a trait we didn’t have in Netanyahu. He would not come to be the leader of the Labor party if he didn’t have that strength.”
Dialogue and compromise are also keys to Herzog’s policies. He wants to negotiate with the Palestinians but says he would seek a regional peace conference if bilateral negotiations fail. To combat Iran’s nuclear program, he says he would work closely with the Obama Administration to define red lines in American-led negotiations. He has remained vague on issues of religion and state ahead of an election that may force him to partner with religious parties.
But for Herzog, policy specifics are mostly beside the point. He has positioned himself as the anti-Netanyahu, collected and moderate under pressure. His fate will likely hinge on whether a moderate alternative is enough to inspire Israeli voters.
“We’re offering an alternative leadership of partnership,” Herzog wrote on Facebook last month. “[Netanyahu is] offering personal survival and a self-centered focus. The public isn’t stupid. In this war, we’re fighting for our home. And we’ll win.”