Can Isaac Herzog Steer Israel to the Left?

The Labor Party leader thinks he can beat Bibi Netanyahu in upcoming elections. He might actually have a chance.

Could Isaac Herzog, leader of Israel’s center-left opposition, become the nation’s next prime minister? As Herzog himself sees it, the result is all but assured. “I’m here to tell you that I will form the next government, and I will lead Israel in a different direction,” the Labor Party chairman told The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Forum on Friday.

That won’t be easy in a country led for the last six years by the right-wing Benjamin (“Bibi”) Netanyahu, the nation’s second-longest-serving prime minister. But Herzog’s optimism isn’t entirely unwarranted. Netanyahu, the leader of the Likud party, announced snap elections just a week ago, but many of Israel’s political players are already coalescing into an informal “Anyone but Bibi” alliance. Sixty percent of respondents in a Jerusalem Post/Ma’ariv Sof Hashavua poll last week said Netanyahu shouldn’t remain prime minister, and a plurality expressed more support for either Moshe Kahlon or Gideon Sa’ar, both Likudniks, than for Netanyahu in a head-to-head race. Herzog, for his part, tracked even with Bibi.

Labor won’t be able to ride disappointment with Netanyahu all the way to power, though. One barrier could be Herzog’s own likeability. Goldberg charitably pointed out that Herzog is regarded in Israel as a “non-charismatic figure.” Herzog retorted that one of his virtues is that “people trust me,” and jokingly alluded to the bitter ends that some of history’s charismatic leaders have met.

Another challenge will be establishing a viable, centrist coalition of parties. Herzog admitted that he hasn’t yet formalized partnerships with other parties, but he did state that “all partners are possible,” from the leftist Meretz party to Avigdor Lieberman’s right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu party to the ultra-Orthodox Shas party. Assuming Labor receives backing from its traditional allies on the left and in the center, and entices the support of Yair Lapid’s centrist Yesh Atid party and other unconventional allies, Herzog’s bloc could conceivably amass the 61 seats necessary to achieve a majority in parliament.

It doesn’t hurt Herzog that, as in last year’s elections, the economy is outranking security as the primary concern for Israeli voters, albeit modestly so. This, in fact, is the strategy he is banking on. Herzog pointed to the 2011 protests in Tel Aviv as indicative of the Israeli electorate’s hunger for a “fair and square” economic deal. The “summer of 2011 was a major watershed in Israeli history,” he said. “All of a sudden the nation woke up and demanded not security or peace; they demanded social justice.” Demands for economic equality and social justice helped Yesh Atid become Israel’s second-largest party in 2013, and Herzog is counting on those same motivations to drive his own electoral success.

Goldberg zeroed in on what is widely considered Herzog’s—and Labor’s—weak point: security. The country’s March 17 election will come less than a year after Israel’s latest war in Gaza, and perhaps amid ongoing violence between Israelis and Palestinians in Jerusalem. Herzog wouldn’t name his “security gurus,” but he assured the audience that his security team consists of people “who have devoted their life to the state of Israel.” In an underhanded jab at Netanyahu, he also quipped, “I’m not going to chicken out.”

What, Goldberg asked, made Herzog think he could succeed in the peace process where previous prime ministers like Ehud Olmert and Ehud Barak had failed? The Labor leader referenced his close rapport with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and his dedication to confidence-building measures such as freezing settlement construction outside major settlement blocs. Herzog forcefully endorsed the two-state solution while acknowledging the challenges to achieving such an agreement, and blamed Netanyahu for endangering the peace process through his adversarial relationship with Abbas.

Herzog also laid the onus on the prime minister for the deterioration in U.S.-Israel relations. “It’s a fact that there is no trust between the [U.S.] president and [Israeli] prime minister,” he declared, going on to say that “one of my first aims [as prime minister] will be to mend those relationships.” Herzog could potentially overcome misgivings about his security credentials by arguing that he is in the best position to mend Israel’s relationship with its most important ally.

Herzog’s overall goal is an ambitious one: to reverse the country’s rightward “skid toward the abyss.” Likud, after all, remains the most popular party in Israel despite widespread dissatisfaction with Netanyahu, and Labor hasn’t held the premiership in over a decade. Israelis may want “anyone but Bibi.” But Herzog has yet to prove that the “anyone” is him.