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Isaac Herzog: The underdog bites back

AFP

Bespectacled, soft-spoken and nerdy, Isaac Herzog has none of the swagger and military plaudits Israelis have come to expect from their leaders.

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His lack of charisma is so pronounced, that in the lead-up to the March 17 election, Herzog’s campaign team felt compelled to release an ad addressing the issue of the candidate’s slightly nasal, unimpressive voice – providing rich comedy material for wags across the world. The issue came up again during an interview with the Israeli Channel 2, when Herzog was asked if he believed Israelis needed a leader with “a thick voice and stories from the trenches”.

Herzog’s answer was that Israelis were ready for a “responsible, prudent leader” who is “not only rhetoric and show”.

In a country proud of its macho military tradition, where brusqueness is a respected national trait, Herzog is an atypical candidate for an Israeli leader.

But while the 54-year-old leader of the Zionist Union alliance may not be physically imposing, he does have a substantial family legacy.

A successful lawyer and former Cabinet minister, Herzog hails from blue-blooded Israeli political stock. His father, Chaim Herzog, served as Israel’s president from 1983 to 1993. His grandfather, Yitzhak Herzog, was chief rabbi in Ireland before he left Europe in 1937 for Palestine. Following the end of World War II and the creation of the Israeli State, he was made Israel’s first Ashkenazi chief rabbi.

But arguably, one of Herzog’s biggest strengths is that he is not Benjamin Netanyahu and is far removed from the Israeli prime minister in content and style.

Domestic and foreign agendas

Over the past few weeks, Herzog has succeeded in inching his way up the opinion polls by staying firmly on topic. “It’s the economy, stupid,” appeared to be his mantra as he focused on addressing the spiraling cost of living during Netanyahu’s tenure.
Herzog has put forward a 7 billion shekels (1.7 billion euros) plan to combat Israel’s social housing shortage. The housing crisis has been the main concern of voters in a country with virtually full employment.

The swaggering, tough-talking Netanyahu had attempted to deflect criticism of his economic track record by concentrating on security. But even when treading on Netanyahu’s traditional strong ground, Herzog managed to hold his own by suggesting that his rival had threatened the country’s security by diminishing Israel’s relationship with the US over the Iran nuclear negotiations.

While the Palestinian peace process -- or lack thereof – did not feature as a major issue on the campaign trail, Herzog has promised that one of the first things he’d want to do as prime minister is to renew peace talks with the Palestinians.

The advantages of underestimation

Born into a prominent Ashkenazi family from Ireland, Herzog grew up in the affluent Tel Aviv suburb of Tzahala.

His nickname, “Bougie", – was coined by his Egyptian-born, French-speaking mother, who says the moniker is a cross between “booba” (Hebrew word for doll) and “bijou” (French for jewel).

During his father’s posting as Israel’s UN ambassador, Herzog studied at the Ramaz Jewish high school and later took courses at New York University and Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. Nevertheless the son of a former Israeli president speaks heavily accented English.

In the initial months of the campaign trail, Herzog’s lack of charisma saw him cast as an underdog in the race.

But in an interview with CNN, Herzog noted that it didn’t bother him. "I have always suffered from a certain underestimation", he said, "and I have always surprised. I will surprise again, and I will show my leadership and stamina."

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