Isaac Herzog, the Irish-Israeli aiming for a St Patrick’s Day election surprise

Polls show the scion of the ‘Israeli Kennedys’ has momentum in campaign’s final days

Isaac Herzog at a campaign rally in a market in the mixed Jewish-Arab city of Lod on March 3rd. The Labor Party leader, who is seeking to becom prime minister of Israel after next week’s general election, has strong Irish connections. Photograph: Uriel Sinai/The New York Times

In Isaac Herzog’s stump speech, honed over long weeks and months on the campaign trail, there invariably comes a point where he must acknowledge his biggest obstacle and turn it to his advantage.

The obstacle is this: facing an incumbent three-time prime minister with a pugnacious style and a reputation for strength on security, can a lawyerly, soft-spoken 54-year-old with a boyish face and a cerebral style really be the man to reclaim the reins of government for his party for the first time in 14 years? In other words, can Isaac Herzog make people believe he can win this?

His response is to remind his audience that he knows a thing or two about springing surprises. When he was appointed minister for social welfare, he says, his critics asked what a privileged kid from the wealthy Tel Aviv suburb of Tzahala knew about welfare. His answer was “a revolution in social-welfare services”, he says.

Comfortable win

When he ran for the Labor Party leadership against the incumbent


Shelly Yachimovich

, he recalls, they gave him no chance. He won comfortably. And when he said he would be a real alternative to

Binjamin Netanyahu

, “they laughed at me, pooh-poohed me and said, ‘What is Bougie talking about?” he told the newspaper


, referring to the childish nickname his mother gave him.

Now, with opinion polls showing the Zionist Union, Labor's alliance with Tzipi Livni's Hahnuah, could become the biggest party in the Knesset after next Tuesday's election, the question is whether Herzog would have the numbers to form a stable coalition. "I am telling you seriously," he tells a press conference for the foreign media in Jerusalem, "I have all the options in forming a coalition."

Herzog remains the underdog, but as the campaign enters its final days, opinion polls suggest he has momentum. To be in with a chance of forming a coalition, analysts believe, the Zionist Union must emerge not only as the biggest party but with a clear seat advantage over Netanyahu's Likud. A Channel 2 poll on Tuesday indicated the Herzog-Livni alliance had a four-seat lead, while a Knesset TV survey put the gap at three seats. Such a margin could well be enough for President Reuven Rivlin to invite Herzog to form a government.

Winning on St Patrick’s Day would have a special resonance. Herzog’s grandfather, also Isaac, was Ireland’s first chief rabbi, from 1919 to 1937. He moved from Belfast to Dublin’s Portobello with his wife Sara (who later founded the World Emunah religious-Zionist women’s organisation) and two young sons Chaim and Jacob in 1922, a time when the area around the South Circular Road was popularly known as Little Jerusalem because of its small but thriving Jewish community.

Close friendship

Rabbi Herzog

was a fluent Irish speaker and a lifelong friend of Eamon de Valera; their close friendship continued after Herzog moved to Palestine to become chief rabbi in 1937.

Chaim Herzog, the current Labor leader's father, was born in Belfast but spent the first 16 years of his life living in the house on Bloomfield Avenue in Portobello. He went to Wesley College and served in the British army during the second World War before joining the Israeli military after the creation of the state.

In 1975 he was appointed Israel's ambassador to the United Nations, and he went on to serve two terms as President of Israel. Father and son had a strong bond.

“Bougie had long ago become a very close friend, and our relationship has gone far beyond what one might expect of a father-and-son relationship,” Chaim wrote in his autobiography, Living History. If he becomes prime minister, Herzog says, the first thing he will do is visit his father’s grave.

The Herzog family is often called the closest thing Israel has to the Kennedys. His uncle was Abba Eban, a leader of the Mapai party (a forerunner to Labor) and the foreign minister from 1966 to 1974. His other uncle was Yaakov Herzog, the director general of the Prime Minister's Office during the Levy Eshkol and Golda Meir governments.

Renowned scholars

The family tree also includes renowned scholars, trade union activists, a celebrated painter, diplomats and business leaders. Asked in a


interview what spurred him on, Herzog replied: “I don’t know, but there is a sort of very powerful internal motor that I carry on my back, perhaps from generations past. At times I think I am a little screwed up in this regard.”

Israelis have an ambivalent attitude towards the man Herzog is seeking to replace. Polls show Netanyahu inspires little affection, but a majority sees him as a strong leader and the most plausible prime minister.

Labor is well aware that on the two occasions since 1977 that it has won elections, it has been led by former military chiefs: Yitzhak Rabin had been the chief of staff who captured the Old City of Jerusalem in the 1967 war and Ehud Barak was the most decorated soldier in Israeli history. Herzog, who was an officer in military intelligence, is in a different mould.

The campaign has taken every opportunity to stress his resolve and toughness, presenting him on roadside posters as an imposing alpha male. But Herzog, who describes himself as the sort of person who always chooses a seat at the back of a room, is also keen to stress his stylistic contrast with the unloved Netanyahu. “My style of leadership is different,” he says. “I am not a general, but a citizen who works with people.”

Where Bibi was combative and divisive, he will calm and soothe. Where Bibi barged in, he will think first.

“I am always looking for the middle path,” he told an interviewer. “I am a social democrat who wants both a free market and a just state. I am a pragmatist who tries to act fairly.”

“My role as a leader,” he said, “is to unite everyone, bring them together... give them a sense of purpose and hope.”

The Zionist Union faces difficult odds, but it has been helped by a badly fragmented right and by the campaign’s focus on the soaring cost of living and the lack of affordable housing, problems that have worsened on Netanyhau’s watch. Herzog, a Labor member since 1985 and a Knesset member since 2003, previously served as minister for housing and construction.

His champions argue a Herzog-led administration would give fresh impetus to efforts to agree a settlement with the Palestinians and go a long way to mending Israel’s foreign ties. He has pledged to freeze building in most settlements and go directly to Ramallah to “try to reignite” the peace process.

He may appoint an Arab minister and will show "a time of healing and reconciliation has begun." His rhetoric on security is tough. He describes Netanyahu's controversial speech to Congress earlier this month as a mistake but says there is "no difference" between Netanyahu's policy on the principle of a nuclear Iran and his own. "No Israeli leader will ever accept a nuclear Iran," he said.

Little animosity

Reporters who travel with him have remarked that, even in his opponents’ heartlands, Herzog inspires little animosity. “In previous election campaigns, the Labor candidate could not set foot here without arousing hatred and a riot breaking out,” wrote the columnist

Ari Shavit

after accompanying Herzog to Beit She’an, a Likudnik city in northern Israel. “But 2015 is different. Zionist Union is different. Isaac Herzog is different.”

With the makeup of the next government likely to hinge on the frontrunners’ ability to assemble a coalition from a plethora of rival parties, that quality could be one of Herzog’s most important assets.

And if he does win? “If I succeed in bringing this long campaign to its goal,” he said last week, “there will be a different country here. Israel will become reconciled with itself.”