In an interview, Israeli prime minister candidate Isaac Herzog says the country's people are "fed up" with Benjamin Netanyahu's "politics of fear." If elected, he says he wants to "reignite" the peace process and is prepared to negotiate with the Palestinians.
Isaac Herzog, 54, comes from one of Israel's best known political dynasties. His grandfather was the first chief rabbi of Israel, his father served as president and his uncle foreign minister. Herzog works as a lawyer, has been a member of parliament since 2003 and has also held diverse ministry posts. Most recently, he served as social minister under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu before resigning in 2011.
The death of the social democratic Israeli Labor Party has often been predicted, but Netanyahu's popularity has been declining since Herzog became its leader, giving the party good chances of a revival. The main reason for its recent success is that Herzog and Tzipi Livni have joined forces and have said they will alternate in the role of prime minister if elected.
Public opinion polls for the election on March 17 show the pair performing almost as well as Netanyahu. There's a real possibility Herzog, a man considered to lack charisma and who can often come across awkwardly in front of crowds, could win.
SPIEGEL: Is it possible that the "most boring man in Israeli politics," as you are often called, has a chance of winning the elections and becoming the country's next prime minister?
Herzog: Well, possibly. But I take things seriously, that's not boring.
SPIEGEL: We just watched a Netanyahu campaign ad. It depicts him as a responsible adult dealing with unruly kids who are meant to represent his political opponents. Is such a thing funny?
Herzog: You'd have to ask him. That's Netanyahu's attitude, and that's the problem. Israelis really don't take that nonsense anymore. They understand that Netanyahu is fooling them with a combination of fear and diversion from the real issues. The taxi driver who just drove me said: "Please make sure, that there is no war anymore. The Likud messed up our lives." These guys used to vote for Likud! The joint block I've done with Tzipi Livni is a revolutionary step, which gives hope to many people, hope that change is possible. That is why this relatively boring candidate in front of you will be the next prime minister of Israel, hopefully.
SPIEGEL: Why did you choose the name Zionist Camp to describe your joint election list? Is there any meaning to it, or is that just a tactic in order to appeal to voters in the center who are still undecided?
Herzog: No, this is a major issue, not a tactic. The extreme right wing has conquered Zionism, and we reject that out of hand. Zionism belongs to all Israeli citizens, not just to the extremists. It means equality, minority rights, social justice, well-being and peace with our neighbors. This is our Zionism.
SPIEGEL: Doesn't the name Zionist Camp exclude 20 percent of the population, the Arab Israelis, who are not exactly supporters of Zionism?
Herzog: Not at all. We're actually getting major support from the Arab community. We have a very famous Arab member on our list. Young Arab-Israelis, especially, don't care about titles and slogans -- they care about their life. And we're offering them hope for their lives.
SPIEGEL: The word "left" doesn't feature very often in your speeches. Is that because "left" has become a bad word in Israel?
Herzog: The left is quite small, while there is a big center. And they will be the ones who determine who wins the elections. The left has been locked within its own discourse. They are not looking around and understanding what people are worried about.
SPIEGEL: Many Israelis are worried about high food and rent prices. That was the reason for the social protests four years ago. Can you explain why Israel is so expensive and what you will do to combat that trend?
Herzog: First of all, there is a need to redistribute wealth by empowering and encouraging low-income families. Second, there is the cost of living and housing. The government has created a shortage of apartments, which is a major mistake. Netanyahu did not devote any of his time to this. The cost of land is incomprehensible -- and these are tenders from the government. We can slash it by 50 percent.
SPIEGEL: The journalist Ari Shavit wrote that "People don't like Bibi, but they sleep better when he's in charge." So they may be worried about the high prices, but they are really afraid of the existential threat posed by Hamas, Islamic State and Iran. Can you overcome this fear, especially in a country that has shifted to the right for the last 20 years?
Herzog: Oh, I am not sure the country has substantially shifted to the right. Israelis are demanding peace, and they are demanding that the Palestinians don't shoot at us. And, I think, they want to know that if I negotiate peace, I will not sell them out. That's legitimate. However, Israelis are fed up with the prime minister's politics of fear. They are fed up from hearing the same music again and again. He's been prime minister for six years, and yet he has failed substantially in providing Israelis a decent economy and prospects for peace and security.
SPIEGEL: Some people say that Labor can only win if it has a former general at its helm.
Herzog: Netanyahu was a captain and I am a major in one of the country's famous intelligence units. I don't think that matters at all. This is old politics.
SPIEGEL: Do you think the time of the macho politician is over? Is Israel ready for a softie in power?
Herzog: I think so. And more than that, Israel is ready for a serious, considered and experienced leader. For something else.
SPIEGEL: Netanyahu's most important topic is Iran. He warns about the potential of an Iranian atomic bomb and doesn't believe it will give up its nuclear program. Do you believe the ongoing negotiations could bring about a compromise?
Herzog: Iran is a hateful regime that spreads hate. I think that the international community that is negotiating with Iran has to be stern. However, I think one needs to talk, in a quiet, professional manner, without any blame game, but with all options on the table. That is where I differ from Netanyahu.
SPIEGEL: Are you in favor of an easing sanctions?
Herzog: It think it has to be part of a process, when we know that they are liquidating their nuclear program.
SPIEGEL: What about the other unsolved conflict -- the one with the Palestinians? Why is the peace process playing virtually no role in your election campaign? Do you want to focus only on social issues and economy?
Herzog: I want to be frank about this. The current situation with the Palestinians is one of the worst ever. Abu Mazen (President Mahmoud Abbas) has decided to act unilaterally against Israel, so there's not much confidence among Israelis regarding the prospect of a negotiation process. But Livni and I are both identified with the peace process, and yes, we want to reignite that process. Because our great advantage is that we know much better than Netanyahu how to protect the interests of Israeli citizens.
SPIEGEL: What are your plans, and where would you start? Where the last peace negotiations stopped? With a settlement freeze? Or with a prisoner deal?
Herzog: All I can say now is that it needs to be a process which is based on regional cooperation. Namely, I would want the Egyptians and the Jordanians to be part of the process. I don't want to come out with statements that at the end will not bear fruit. I don't know the current psychological mood of Abu Mazen. Who knows if he wants to negotiate? I met Abu Mazen a couple of times, and like many Israelis I am disturbed by his stubborn position. But we'll try, and we'll have to think about confidence-building measures. One of the main problems today is that there is no trust at all between Abu Mazen and Netanyahu.
SPIEGEL: Given that the Palestinian Authority is now on track to secure their statehood with unilateral diplomatic measures, will it even be possible to go back to the old model of the peace process?
Herzog: I think this is a very dangerous and useless game of Abu Mazen. The international community must object to that.
SPIEGEL: What alternative to unilateral measures would you offer to the Palestinians?
Herzog: I am not willing to come out with any declaration until I know I am the next prime minister -- and that Abu Mazen is willing to talk. But yes, I can absolutely imagine negotiating with him. And some sort of confidence-building measures will happen soon.
SPIEGEL: Your designated defense minister, Amos Yadlin, doesn't think that Abbas is the best partner Israel has.
Herzog: Yes, he thinks Abu Mazen is not willing to make a peace agreement with an Israeli leader. But I would say: Let's see what happens.
SPIEGEL: Do you think a two-state solution is still possible, not just as an idea, but in practice, in spite of the settlements?
Herzog: Yes, it's still possible. Absolutely. We believe in the idea of settlement blocks, we will swap land for those blocks. And I cannot believe that there are mothers and fathers on the other side that don't want to make peace. But it will be difficult. Some think we are starting from the same spot, but that's wrong. We've gone back in the last years. And in order to return to the same spot, it will take a long time. And even more time to find the right formula and to finally move on.
SPIEGEL: How does the escalation of violence in the region -- the civil war in Syria and the rise of Islamic State -- affect negotiations? Will it make peace even harder to achieve?
Herzog: Islamic State is a major threat, and we have to unite all forces to fight them. But I think that it is a must to relax the situation with the Palestinians. Let's be clear here: I don't promise that I can succeed. But I promise that I will try.
SPIEGEL: Can you promise that there won't soon be a fourth Gaza War?
Herzog: We are all wary of another round of conflict. Therefore, Gaza must be demilitarized, and there has to be reconstruction. This was an idea which Livni presented at the end of the operation in summer -- to have a UN Security Council resolution, with demilitarization of Gaza on the one hand, and the entry of the Palestinian Authority into Gaza on the other. That was rejected by Netanyahu and ultimately failed. So this is the situation. Whenever the situation is at a standstill, it's dangerous.
SPIEGEL: Would you make it a precondition for any future peace agreement that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish State, as Netanyahu does?
Herzog: I am against preconditions, they are unnecessary. But I think that in the final stages of the negotioations, each nation should recognize the other, namely that Israel recognizes Palestine as the nation-state of the Palestinians and they recognize Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people. That is part of the 1947 partition plan, it's in the Oslo accords and even Yasser Arafat talked about a Jewish state. But as a precondition? No.
SPIEGEL: One of the reasons why the last coalition goverment broke apart was the conflict regarding the "Jewish Nation State bill," which aimed to define Israel first and foremost as a Jewish state. What were the reasons for this sudden notion of placing religion above democracy?
Herzog: It came from people in the Likud and on the right, for obviously political reasons. They touched the most sensitive cores of the Israeli society, but they failed and they fell flat on their face. Israel is both, Jewish and democratic. It is not written down, it has evolved in an evolutionary process. And I think there is an important equilibrium now out there.
SPIEGEL: Do you think this searching for a defined identity is a reaction to the turmoil in the region?
Herzog: Absolutely. It is at least partly a reaction to the events last summer, following the abduction and killing of three Jewish teenagers and the war in Gaza. This has reinforced the social cohersion, but also the feeling of being threatened.
SPIEGEL: Israeli writer Amos Oz once said that there is a growing sense that Israel might one day become some sort of an "isolated ghetto". Do you have that feeling as well?
Herzog: Yes, because Netanyahu has isolated Israel within the family of nations.
SPIEGEL: At the beginning of March, Netanyahu will hold a speech in Congress that was not coordinated with President Barack Obama -- a development that has deeply irritated Washington.
Herzog: I think it is totally unnecessary. He should cancel this speech. This appearance in Congress is adverse to Israeli interests and will only hamper further the relations between the government of Israel and the US administration. Instead of harming our image, we should tell the great story of our country: We are a state that started from nothing, from the ashes of the Holocaust. We brought in Jews from over 100 countries. My mother fled from Egypt. My father came from Ireland. We united and created an incredible country, where the right of free speech is as wide as imaginable. We have a very strong supreme court and legal system.
SPIEGEL: You say that Netanyahu failed on all fronts and your primary campaign slogan is "It's either us or them." But can you promise you are not going to enter into a coalition with Likud?
Herzog: First of all, I am going to do everything I can to make Netanyahu lose. But yes, if necessary, I may offer parties including Likud to be part of my coalition. By saying now that he is refusing a coalition with us, Netanyahu confirms what we understood long ago: that his ideal coalition is a mix of radical parties and political figures so that each person who votes for Netanyahu is actually bringing in Naftali Bennett, his radical views and his radical fellow party members.
SPIEGEL: Your father was former President Chaim Herzog. How did he influence your political career?
Herzog: The most important thing I learned from my father is: Never give up. You must hope and believe and do. I left a very lucrative law practice to serve the nation, as did my family.
SPIEGEL: Is your father your role model, or is there any other?
Herzog: My role model for prime minister is Levi Eshkol. He is less known, he was prime minister during the 1960s. His accomplishment is that he prepared Israel for the Six Day War. And he made the huge step of extending his hand to the other political camp, the right-wing nationalists. He was the one who gave a huge boost to equalizing the Arab citizens in Israel. He was in favor of free speech and the media. He wasn't a big charismatic leader -- he was simply an excellent prime minister and a great leader.
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