Will Herzog be Israel’s Next PM?
On Monday, the 19th Knesset voted to dissolve itself, less than two years after its election. For many of its members it was a sad day, a kind of political hara-kiri. They have no chance of re-election. Some of them are so forgettable, that I do not recognize their names or faces.
The day after, a political bomb exploded on the TV news. Channel 10 – slightly more liberal than the two others – published the results of a quick public opinion poll by a respected pollster. They were amazing. The first result was that the Labor Party, after its union with Tzipi Livni’s “the Movement,” will be the largest party in the next Knesset. Israelis gasped. What? Labor? A party seen by many as clinically dead?
Of course, this is only the first of hundreds of polls to come before election day, March 17 2015. Yet the results had their impact. (Two other polls since then confirmed its findings.) A second result was that Likud, in second place, would get exactly the same number of seats whether led by Benjamin Netanyahu or by his putative challenger, Gideon Sa’ar, an unglamorous party functionary (and a former employee of mine). As Interior Minister, he excelled mainly in persecuting African asylum-seekers. (At the last moment, Sa’ar gave up his challenge to Netanyahu.) Is it possible that Netanyahu the Great, the “King Bibi” of Time magazine, is no longer a vote magnet?
Ya’ir Lapid, the hero of the last elections, has shrunk to half his size. He is like the gourd in the Book of Jonah, “which came up in a night and perished in a night.” But the real sensation of the poll was something else: though Netanyahu still headed the list of preferred candidates for Prime Minister, Isaac Herzog, the leader of Labor, came so close as to make a difference.
Only a month ago, such a result would have appeared a hilarious hoax. At that time, Netanyahu had an unassailable lead, towering over all the dwarfs around. Conventional wisdom had it that “there is no one else.” Now there is. Herzog! Herzog?
Herzog is the German word for duke. Yitzhak, commonly called Buji (that’s what his mother called him when he was small), is indeed of aristocratic origin. His grandfather, Yitzhak Herzog (after whom he was named, according to the Jewish tradition), was the Chief Rabbi of Ireland. He had such a good reputation that he was called in the 30s to become the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Palestine. He was considered (comparatively) liberal.
His son, Chaim, studied in England, excelled as a boxer and joined the British army in World War II. He was serving as an intelligence officer in Egypt when he met Susan Ambash, the daughter of a rich local Jewish family. The two Ambash girls were sent on Saturdays to the synagogue to fetch Jewish officers and bring them home for the Shabbat meal. On one Shabbat they caught two – one Chaim Herzog and one Aubrey (Abba) Eban. They married them.
In the 1948 war, Chaim Herzog joined the new Israeli Army as an intelligence officer, eventually becoming a general and chief of army intelligence. On leaving the army he founded what became the largest and richest law firm in the country.
But his real days of glory came on the eve of the Six-day War. For three weeks, Israel fell victim to an attack of acute anxiety. Some spoke of the coming Second Holocaust. During that period, General Herzog had a daily program on the radio and succeeded in soothing the public mind with his sober, sensible analysis, neither belittling nor exaggerating the danger ahead. The people rewarded him with the presidency of the state. In this post, he was more British than Israeli. An example: at a time when I was boycotted by all the heads of the establishment, I was surprised by an invitation to a private dinner with him at the presidential residence. We had a pleasant talk, without any particular subject. He just wanted to get to know me.
I used the opportunity to plead for his intervention in the security arrangements at Ben Gurion airport, where Arab citizens were (and are) routinely singled out and searched in a humiliating manner. (He promised, but nothing much came of it.)
By the way, I had a similar dinner with his brother, Ya’acov, then the Director General of the Prime Minister’s office. Of the two brothers, Ya’acov was considered the outstanding intellect. Then as now I was preaching the two-state solution, which at the time was totally rejected in Israel and around the world. Over dinner, Ya’acov said he would like to hear my arguments for this solution and cross-examined me – again, a more British than Israeli attitude. Senior Israeli officials do not talk with people of the radical opposition.
Isaac Herzog also served in army intelligence before he was appointed cabinet secretary. Joining the Labor party, like his father, he became a member of the Knesset and minister in several minor ministries. Slightly built, blue eyed, with a fair complexion, Herzog (54) looks more British than Israeli. He speaks softly, expresses himself in a moderate way and has no enemies. He is the very opposite of the typical Israeli politician.
He surprised everybody when he beat one of these for the chairmanship of the Labor Party. Sheli Yachimovitch is strident, outspoken and belligerent, a resolute socialist who does not hesitate to tread on people’s toes. She antagonized too many colleagues and was voted out. Buji became leader of the party and automatically “Leader of the Opposition,” a title and status accorded by law to the chief of the largest opposition party. (One of the little jokes of politics: Herzog was about to lose his title and the perks associated with it when Netanyahu dismissed Lapid, whose Knesset faction is larger than Labor. Since the Knesset dissolved itself, Lapid does not inherit the title.)
Assuming the party leadership, Herzog lost no time in declaring himself a candidate for prime minister. This was generally met with a tolerant smile. Now, for the first time, this seems just possible. Not likely, by any means. But the impossible has become possible. The unthinkable, thinkable. This in itself is a revolution.
During the last years, Israeli media have been obsessed with the idea that “Israel is moving to the right.” That Netanyahu, bad as he is, is preferable to those who will inevitably succeed him – outright fascists, warmongers, Arab-eaters.
It was almost fashionable to declare that the Left is finished, dead, deceased. Among commentators, it has become de rigeur, especially among leftists, to heap scorn on the Left and the remaining leftists. Poor guys (and gals, of course). Can’t see what’s going on. Harbor illusions. Whistling in the gathering darkness. And suddenly there is a chance – a remote chance, but a chance nevertheless – for the Left to regain power. Why? What has happened?
The easiest explanation is that people just got fed up with “Bibi.” Netanyahu is a person it is easy to get fed up with. In fact, it has happened to him before. His wife, Sarah’le, who is universally disliked, does not help. But, I believe, it goes much deeper. The poll shows that the Likud will not fare better with another chief candidate. Has the Likud lost its touch?
Two factors have contributed to this. First, Moshe Kahlon. A former typical Likud stalwart, popular among his peers, suddenly left his party. No reason given. As Minister of Communications, a very minor ministry, Kahlon had become immensely popular. He took on the tycoons of the mobile phone industry, broke their monopoly, instituted competition and cut prices by half. Since it is difficult to imagine a young Israeli – male or female – without a mobile phone stuck to an ear, he became a hero.
Now Kahlon, two months younger than Herzog, has announced that he is creating a new party. It is to be called “Kulanu” (“We All”). Though it still has no candidates, it already emerges in the poll with 10 seats – mostly supported by former Likud voters.
This is hugely significant, for several reasons. First, the basic electorate of Likud consists of oriental Jews, though Menachem Begin, Netanyahu and most of their colleagues were and are Ashkenazi. Kahlon is as oriental as you get: His parents came from Tripoli in Libya, they have seven children, Moshe grew up in a poor immigrant township. Breaking the Likud hold on the oriental community is extremely important. Especially as Kahlon cites Begin as the leader who gave up the entire Sinai peninsula for peace with Egypt. His “moderate Likud” could change the entire balance between Right and Center-Left in the next Knesset. And that, after all, is what counts.
The second reason. Bennett’s extreme right-wing religious-nationalist (some say fascist) “Jewish Home” party is gaining strength – also gaining votes from Likud. Naftali Bennett, smooth, amiable, with the smallest kippah on earth on his head, is appealing to secular voters too. Traditionally, the Orthodox parties hold the key. Since they care neither for Left or Right and are beholden to no one but themselves, they can choose.
For a long time, they were the allies of Labor. For the last few decades, they were automatic allies of the Right. After the last elections, Netanyahu dropped them for the ultra-secular Lapid. Now they are ready for revenge. Since Herzog is the grandson of a chief Rabbi, he is kosher. Herzog won his first success of the current campaign by forming a common list with Tzipi Livni. It is now up to him to keep up the momentum and make alliances with – possibly – Lapid, Kahlon and Meretz. If successful in the elections, he must stretch out his hands to the Orthodox and the Arabs. Last week I sketched out this vision. This week it has advanced by a small but significant step towards realization. Can the duke become king? Well, that’s what the history books tell us.