Isaac Herzog

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You are Isaac Herzog, Senior Member of the Labor Party

“How did we get to a point where the party of Yitzhak Rabin, who was assassinated 18 years ago for acting relentlessly in the pursuit of peace, has erased its duty to reach a solution, agree on recognized borders, and end its subjugation of another people, from its agenda?”

“We are yearning for peace, but we have to make peace with those who are willing to sit down and talk to us, not those who are calling everyday for our destruction and are trying to kill our citizens.”

Early Career

You were born in Tel Aviv in 1960, the son of General Chaim Herzog, Israel’s sixth president, and the grandson of Yitzhak He’Levi Herzog, the former Chief Rabbi of Israel. In short, you were born into a prominent family, and you had the opportunity to spend several years in New York as a young man while your father served as Israel’s representative to the United Nations. After completing your military service and obtaining a Law degree, you were elected to the Israeli parliament (the “Knesset”) in 2003. You have served in the Knesset ever since, and have at various times held cabinet positions as Minister of Housing and Construction and Minister of Welfare & Social Services.

You career followed the fortunes of the Labor Party, which meant that you had a somewhat bumpy road. The Labor Party was the dominant political party in Israel for its first thirty years, but it gradually lost its political force such that it has not held the Prime Ministership since Ehud Barak was defeated by Ariel Sharon in 2001. Labor's political fortunes remained on a steady decline for over a decade, through the Prime Ministerships of Ariel Sharon, Ehud Olmert, and the second tenure of Benjamin Netanyahu. As Labor Party leader, Ehud Barak joined Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition as Minister of Defense in 2009, despite Labor's winning only a very modest 13 of 120 parliament (Knesset) seats. Under Barak, Labor stayed in the coalition until 2011 when Barak, under pressure from Labor Party Knesset members upset with Netanyahu's resistance to actively seeking a two-state solution, split with Labor to form his own party ("Independence") taking four other Labor Knesset members with him. In the 2013 Knesset elections, Labor (led by media personality Shelly Yachimovich) had something of a renaissance, almost doubling its seats to 15, and becoming the lead party of the opposition. While this was nowhere near Labor's glory days, it was taken as an indicator of better things to come. Not good enough, however, for Ms. Yachimovich to retain her job as Head of the Labor Party. In November 2013, you ran for the position of Labor Party Leader and soundly defeated Ms. Yachimovich.

The context for your rise to prominence

You made some highly visible moves during the early weeks of your tenure in your new position. Within the first two weeks as Labor Party Leader you traveled to Ramallah to meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to declare your support for a two-state solution. You said that you were “impressed by the willingness of the President (Abbas) to move toward an agreement,” adding that you believed a "clear majority" of Israelis supported a peace deal and even offering Prime Minister Netanyahu Labor’s support if he reached such an agreement. You also surprised many by reaching out to the leader of the Shas Party, seeking great cooperation between the two parties. Shas is an ultra-Orthodox political party in Israel that supports Halakha, the Jewish religious law, which consists of laws such as those prohibiting actions on Shabbat. Shas is socially conservative and works to convert non-Orthodox Jews into ultra-orthodox. The party has not been a supporter of a two-state solution, but you felt that your two parties had common ground with regard to economic policy, as well as a shared wish to topple the Netanyahu government. You and Shas leader Aryeh Deri have met on several occasions, and it is rumored that you will aggressively court Shas to join you in a coalition government.

That opportunity could arrive much sooner than anyone had expected as, in December 2014, Prime Minister Netanyahu fired Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Finance Minister Yair Lapid from his cabinet, and called for new elections, which have been set for March 2015. A word of background is needed here. Livni was a longtime political ally of Netanyahu’s, serving with him for several years in the Likud Party. Livni joined Likud Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in his new Kadima (“forward”) Party and served as Foreign Minister for four years under Sharon and his successor, Ehud Olmert. Over these years and after, Livni gradually became a stronger supporter of the two-state solution, and after she lost the 2009 race for Prime Minister to Netanyahu, she was the opposition leader for three years until she was voted out of the Kadima leadership in 2012. She formed a new party called Hatnuah (“The Movement”) and fared well enough in 2013 that she was appointed to Netanyahu’s cabinet as Minister of Justice and Chief Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiator. Yair Lapid, a former television news anchor, formed a centrist party for the 2013 elections (Yesh Atid—“There is a Future”) and shocked everyone by performing so well that he was not only invited to join the government, but was given the plum post of Minister of Finance.

Little more than a year later, however, Netanyahu announced that he was firing Lapid and Livni from his cabinet, dissolving his government, and declaring new elections for 2015. Netanyahu stated that the election results in 2013 had forced him to bring Livni and Lapid’s parties into his coalition, and that these parties were making it impossible for him to carry out his governing agenda, resisting his efforts, for example, to ask the Palestinians to formally recognize Israel as a Jewish state. More to the point, though, Prime Minister Netanyahu was gambling that his political standing had improved since the 2013 elections, and that new elections would allow him to form a conservative coalition and, at the time, it appeared that there was good reason for him to be optimistic on this front.

Your political ascendance

In the wake of Netanyahu’s call for new elections, you moved quickly to take control of the political story. You announced that Labor and Tzipi Linvi’s Ha’Tnuah party would run jointly (as the Zionist Center Coalition), and that if you won the election you would share the Prime Ministership, with you serving for the first two years, and Livni for the second two. It was, without question, a bold move, and your joint slate immediately rose in the polls. Outside observers were of two minds about your move. Many felt that you were giving away too much, given that Livni’s party was running well behind Labor, and suggested that you had been out-maneuvered by Livni. On the other hand, your joint slate began polling evenly with Likud, and in terms of perception you moved from a long-shot to a viable candidate. You also reaped some benefit from the perception that you saw a woman as an equal partner, indicating that you had rather astutely navigated gender politics.

Another clear strength of yours is your strong relationship with Secretary of State John Kerry and the Obama Administration, and your belief that that a robust relationship between the Israeli and American administrations is crucial. In this connection, it may be less about what you have or haven’t done, and more about the perception that Prime Minister Netanyahu has alienated the Obama Administration at every opportunity, very much including his acceptance of a controversial invitation from Speaker of the House John Boehner to address the US Congress about the Administration’s Iran policy on March 3rd, 2015, two weeks ahead of the Israeli elections. Critics have said that the extending of such an invitation, without running the idea past the Administration, is a breach of diplomatic protocol. Whether it is or not, however, it certainly contributes to the worsening of relations between Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Obama, and offers you a political opening to exploit.

Finally, polls indicate that most Israelis feel that the state is headed in the wrong direction, and that they also have grown weary of the Prime Minister. It also appears that many Israelis are struggling to understand why Prime Minister Netanyahu has been so critical of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, at a time when Abbas is seen by many Israelis as being committed to a negotiated two-state solution. In this sense, your strong relationship with Abbas is also an asset, though you will need to reassure those people who might fear that you will compromise Israeli security for the sake of reaching a negotiated settlement.

Character-playing notes

Your position in the simulation is a delicate one, given the fact that you’re not a member of the Israeli administration, and you are certainly vulnerable to accusations of meddling in places where you don’t belong. As much as anything, you need to develop relationships with key stakeholders in Palestine, the United States, and in Europe, conveying a sense that you are a person of substance with whom leaders will be able to work. Many leaders have grown tired of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s perceived arrogance, and your naturally mild personality will offer a clear alternative. However, before you can do anything in the cause of peace, you need to get elected, and you need to convince Israeli voters that your mild-mannered, nerdish style won’t result in your getting taken by more savvy politicians. You will also need to differentiate yourself from Netanyahu in ways other than your personal style and your commitment to a negotiated peace, and over the coming weeks you must work to figure this out. Use the coming weeks as a test run for a Herzog Prime Ministership.

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