Bibi's Opponent: 'I Trust the Obama Administration to Get a Good Deal'

Isaac Herzog, who could end up as prime minister of Israel, has a very different understanding of his country's relationship with the U.S. than the man he's hoping to replace.

Isaac Herzog interviewed by Jeffrey Goldberg at the Brookings Saban Forum (Peter Halmagyi)

Of the many differences between Benjamin "Bibi" Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, and the man who may unseat him, Isaac "Buji" Herzog (I'll post separately on the ridiculousness of Israeli nicknames), none strikes me as more immediately consequential than the contrasting ways in which they view President Barack Obama.

Yes, Netanyahu and Herzog differ stylistically and dispositionally, and yes, their views on a range of economic, security, and social issues are miles apart, but it is their diverging approaches to management of the American file that is most dramatic.

About Netanyahu's approach, what else is there to say? The prime minister decided to turn the leader of the United States, the country that is Israel's chief benefactor, diplomatic protector, weapons supplier and strategic partner—into an adversary by, among other things, making common cause with Obama's domestic political adversaries. Netanyahu has legitimate criticisms of the Obama administration's handling of the Iranian nuclear issue, but he mismanaged the relationship so badly that the doors of the White House are practically closed to him. (And yes, it may be unpleasant to acknowledge, but it is true that responsibility for the maintenance of the relationship rests with the junior, dependent, partner, not with the superpower. Please see my recent conversation with Michael Oren, the former Israeli ambassador to the U.S., for more on this subject.)

We know, alas, what Netanyahu thinks of Obama—last year, people close to the prime minister told me that he had "written off" Obama, which is, of course, a geopolitical impossibility. But what does Herzog think about Obama—and specifically, about his handling of the Iran nuclear talks? Here is what he told me in December, when I interviewed him at the Brookings Institution's Saban Forum: "I trust the Obama administration to get a good deal."

Whether he actually does, I do not know. But I do know that he is clever enough to talk about the U.S.-Israel relationship with discretion and nuance. Herzog is more hawkish than his right-wing foes have painted him, and his principal adviser on defense affairs, Amos Yadlin, a former military intelligence chief who was one of the eight Israeli pilots who bombed the Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981, is not soft on the issue. But what he is —and what Herzog is—is practical. Both men know that Israel loses in the Iran equation if it alienates the U.S. president, and both men believe that Obama's pursuit of a deal is not Chamberlain-like, but instead a regional necessity—so long as Iran is kept at least a year away from nuclear breakout.

Herzog does not downplay the Iran matter, but nor does he cast it in apocalyptic terms, as Netanyahu does. “I agree that a nuclear Iran is extremely dangerous, and I believe that it must be prevented,” Herzog told The Washington Post recently. "No Israeli leader will accept a nuclear Iran. All options for me are still on the table,” including the military option. But when asked if a nuclear Iran posed an "existential threat," he demurred: "It is a big threat. That’s enough."

On another pressing, possibly existential issue, the Palestinian-Israeli peace process, Herzog argues that the status is quo is unsustainable, which puts him in line with Obama's own thinking on the subject: "This is not a situation where you wait and the problem goes away," the U.S. president said in an interview I conducted with him in 2013.

In my conversation with Herzog in December, he opened with an adamant declaration that his candidacy was a serious one. "There is ... this notion that Netanyahu, or the Likud, is unbeatable," he said. "I am here to tell you that I will form the next government and I will lead Israel to a different direction. And it's feasible if we build the proper coalitions in Israeli politics."

What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Okay, Mr. Prime Minister, how are you going to build that coalition?

Isaac Herzog: I think you have to understand that it requires a lot of things. Number one—that our egos are set aside. I lead Labor—Labor is the party that founded the state of Israel; it's deeply rooted in Israeli society. We believe, and I believe that from day one, since I took office, that we should have a front running together. There has to be a centrist Israeli bloc that presents a clear alternative, an unequivocal alternative to Benjamin Netanyahu.

Goldberg: Let's talk about you and your candidacy. You're obviously a man of accomplishment. You come from a very famous family in Israel. But you are known in Israel as, let's say, a non-charismatic figure.

Herzog: Thank you.

Goldberg: You're welcome. There's a certain assumption made about—

Herzog: Do you know how many charismatic leaders we had and what happened to them? Just think about that.

Goldberg: There's a certain understanding in Israeli politics, and maybe this is just received wisdom, that the voters want somebody, especially from the center or center-left, who is either a general or is burly or gruff. No one would mistake you for Gabi Ashkenazi walking down the street. [Gabi Ashkenazi is a former Israeli Defense Forces chief of staff. Click here to see what he looks like.] So talk about the barriers to your success among the voters, and then we'll talk about the Labor Party's barriers.

Herzog: No. It's combined. It's intertwined, where the staging of Labor is an issue of itself.

Labor is staged right now in the center-left. It should resume its role as a mother party of a major bloc, together with all the other parties which I mentioned, because Labor has the capability of being so.

Now as for myself, since I don't intend to have kind of a psychological treatment with you. The real story is the following. There is an innate fear that runs within Israeli society of all that we see and hear around us, and you know what? It's a natural reaction of human beings. And my duty and role is to acquire enough trust. In all of the data and the polls, people trust me. This is one of my virtues. They have to be able to trust in me. And this is what I'm focusing on. That's my main challenge.

Goldberg: Come to this large question of the Labor Party. Why is the Labor Party in such a diminished state? Where did it go wrong?

Herzog: It's not necessarily in a diminished state.

Goldberg: Well, certainly compared to the founding of the state.

Herzog: Right now the Israeli political map is comprised of medium-sized parties. The last one who had more than 40 mandates was Ariel Sharon. But as for your question. A few processes, undercurrents—the first one was that we lost touch with some of what the public really feels is important to them. For a long time, we were members in coalitions of other leaders. We kind of were erased of our identity. It took us time to recover, and we also lost touch with new groups in society while taking the role and demanding to be part of it.

For example, the Russian immigration of a million people. We kind of lost them somewhere. They supported both Rabin and Barak. And they were turned off. Add to it other groups. The Arab population—they gave 96 or 98 percent support to Ehud Barak.

Couple it with the fact that there's a young generation who took over, who's coming in, who's voting, and they don't remember the legacy of Labor. And add to that the fact that even within that young generation, or the general public at large, we were viewed as giving up too quickly to the Palestinians or the Arabs.

Goldberg: On that subject, imagine that it's April of next year and you're the prime minister. You're a big advocate, obviously, of the two-state solution. I want to know specifically from you why you think that you will achieve what Ehud Barak failed to achieve and what Ehud Olmert failed to achieve. They tried to make peace, the first with Yasser Arafat, the second with Abu Mazen [current Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas]. It didn't work.

Herzog: I'm not going in with any illusions. But I'm not willing to give up. And moreover, I believe that part of it has to do with psychology. We are not dealing with psychology at all. The fact that there is no connection, no discussion, no discourse or no trust between the leaders, is adverse to the ability to reach an agreement. Yesterday morning I had breakfast with Gerry Adams, the leader of the [Irish Republican Army's political wing] Sinn Fein. May I remind you he was an outcast? He came to Israel and Palestine. I know him. And we had breakfast. And I said to him, “Gerry, could you tell me, what was the moment of truth, that all of a sudden you guys moved?” And he said, “When we all came to realize that we won't achieve it in any other way—both sides.”

And also, there was a unique configuration of leaders. Amongst them, or predominantly one of them is Bill Clinton, who knew how to work on the psychology of the leaders and the peoples. This is part of it and nobody is dealing with it.

I speak a lot to Abu Mazen, and I said to Abu Mazen, “People say that even if I negotiate with you, you'll never make peace with us.” And he laughed, and he said, “I'm sure we can reach an agreement.”

It depends on building trust. It depends on confidence-building measures. It depends on being innovative, bold, and it depends on radiating to the people that there is hope. The situation that we see right now is so devastating because there's a feeling of lack of hope. There's a despair feeling and most worrisome of all is the unleashing of feelings of religious hatred that is so dangerous to all of us, turning it into religious war.

Goldberg: You are prime minister—what is your settlement policy?

Herzog: My settlement policy first and foremost is based on the famous [Clinton] parameters. I believe in the blocs. I definitely believe in Gush Etzion [a major settlement bloc just outside Jerusalem] being part of Israel. It's essential for its security.

Goldberg: When the U.S. administration tells you to stop building in Gush Etzion—

Herzog: Wait, wait, I haven't finished.

Goldberg: No, no, no, I want to get this in. When the U.S. administration tells you, no building in Gush Etzion, and you're prime minister, what do you say?

Herzog: It will be a mistake that you go in with all these—I learned from Hillary Clinton. She said, I won't answer the theoretical questions. Because I believe that Israel, as always—I always said it—Israel should put a plan on the table. Israel should move forward and offer. And within that umbrella of movement, there are things that both sides can do.

I believe in freezing settlement construction outside the blocs as part of confidence-building measures. But it should be part of a plan that Israel presents. And this plan should of course take into account, most importantly, the basic inherent security needs of the state of Israel.

Goldberg: What if it doesn't work? Do you have a plan B? I mean, you've spoken very feelingly about the unsustainability of the status quo.

Herzog: That's true.

Goldberg: But what is the plan B?

Herzog: The problem is that when we speak of plan Bs, we already negate the possibility of moving on with plan A.

I know there are many experts who don't believe in the negotiating process and rather believe in unilateral steps. I think Israel suffered a certain trauma from a unilateral step of pulling out of Gaza. We have to attend to that fear. We were there—I was there. We were blamed for pulling out by our brothers and sisters from the settlements in Gaza and we said to them, there will be the new Hong Kong of the Middle East, and it didn't work out. So we have to take it into account.

I do believe however, unequivocally and from the bottom of my heart, that since it's a must, it's a must under all circumstances, to separate from the Palestinians, that if it fails, we will have to take steps that define our borders in a clearer way.

Goldberg: That's unilateral withdrawal.

Herzog: Depends on which way you do the unilateralism side. There are ways, even if you don't negotiate, you can coordinate. Even if you can freeze settlement construction as I mentioned. You can do steps that say, I gave priority to that area and not the other. But I think it's a mistake that we already assume that it's over. It's part of the tragedy that unfolds in front of our eyes. It is not true, I'm telling you absolutely. It is possible, absolutely possible still, to make peace with the Palestinians.

Goldberg: I'm just trying to put myself in the shoes of an Israeli voter who hears you say that, if all else fails, we are going to have to unilaterally withdraw from parts—large parts—

Herzog: I did not say that.

Goldberg: Well, what are you saying?

Herzog: I said we'll have to work smartly in making efforts, whether legislative or others, in arranging the fact that most Israelis will be in certain areas. But I'm not willing to go into any detail.

Goldberg: Let's turn to relations between the United States and Israel. You have spoken about this as a crisis.

Herzog: I think that the policies of the Israeli government have led us to a situation of total lack of trust—total lack of trust between the administrations or their leaders. Now it's essential—it's essential to have trust between the leaders, not only the professionals, not only the government level, but the leaders. It's a fact. It's a fact that there is no trust at all between the president and the prime minister. And we will have to attend to it. And one of my first aims will be to mend those relationships. Throughout Israel's history, the ability to have direct contact, trust, and conversations between the top leaders was essential in critical moments, to Israel's wellbeing as well as to regional peace and safety.

Goldberg: Do you blame the American side or the Israeli side more for this?

Herzog: I'm not in a blame game. Listen, I'm telling the Israeli people that there are so many faulty policies that we will have to correct, and there are so many mistakes that Netanyahu has done that we will correct.

Even if we argue, we should do it in closed rooms. We knew how to argue, even if we debate, but there's the issue of trust, of sharing common interests, of telling each side what's the problem and where—what's my interest, what's your interest, let's try to get together and agree. Because the United States is really still the major superpower of the world, because the United States is not pulling out of the Middle East as people were perceiving it to be. It's wrong, it's not true. And because the United States is our closest ally.

Goldberg: Well, I've heard people on the right in Israel talk about replacing Europe, for instance, with a China-India policy. You don't think that Israel can pivot east?

Herzog: There's nothing to compare, with all due respect to these important countries, economically they are very important countries. But we look at the record, look at the record in the United Nations. Look at the record in the UN Security Council. We have only really one trustworthy ally, which we really share affection and trust with on so many levels, and there's nothing to replace that.

Goldberg: I want to come to that in a second, but one more foreign-policy national-security question—where do you rank the Iran threat in the scheme of threats—in the range of threats. Obviously the current prime minister believes that Iran poses a unique existential threat, the Iranian nuclear program in particular, to Israel. Do you believe that that is the paramount threat facing Israel today?

Herzog: I believe it's a very, very important threat.

Goldberg: What is the most—

Herzog: It is definitely an important threat, and it is an important threat that has to be dealt with. And may I say the following. I think that the negotiation process is important. I think the United States and its allies should get the best deal possible. I think we should enable it to get the best deal possible, but we should not rule any alternative off the table until we see that deal.

Goldberg: Do you trust the Obama administration to get a good deal?

Herzog: I trust the Obama administration to get a good deal. We hope they'll get the best deal possible. That means a lot of elements, most importantly, the fact that we have to agree on a set break-out time that will give ample warning to everybody. If the Iranians want to break the agreement and move towards the bomb, I think the professionals have to work on it and we have to give it a chance.

Nonetheless, we shouldn't be naïve. We still live in a very dangerous and complicated world and region. The policies of the Iranian regime are clear to us. We've been discussing them here for years. And we shouldn't be naïve to believe that if there's a deal, all is well. There should be very strict supervision, very strict monitoring, and deciphering of whatever's going on in relation to that program.

Goldberg: I just have to step back and ask a very basic question at this moment. It's something I actually don't understand. Why is Israel moving towards elections right now? Can anyone actually explain what happened?

Herzog: This—the situation is like some sort of a theater act, whereby each side locked the other side to a situation where they couldn't move on together. And I think that part of it has to do with the ill decisions of Benjamin Netanyahu, decided that he can pull this one again. And if you ask me, the Israeli public will be faced with the question—is it willing to have another term of Benjamin Netanyahu? It will be the key question in this election.

In addition to all the important issues which you've discussed, but it will also be a question that will reflect the following. Will Israel skid dangerously into becoming a more extreme state in its behavioral mode, definitely as a government, or will Israel correct itself into the direction of a well-positioned policies that go together with the original envisionment of Zionism, understanding our regional situation, trying to move towards peace and social justice, alignment with the United States, economic recovery and most importantly, strengthening and fostering democratic values?

Goldberg: If you had been prime minister this past summer, how would you have handled the Hamas threat?

Herzog: First and foremost, I think we should have a combination, both of force and diplomacy. Part of the problem is that we entered that crisis with less international credit in our hands, and that led to a situation whereby within the second week, the international community started already showing nerves and short-sightedness in terms of what's going on in Gaza, because the pictures that came out of Gaza of course had a bearing and an influence.

One has to see how we deteriorated into that conflict, and how to make sure that we don't deteriorate again. Part of it has to do with building a very strong regional coalition that brings in the Palestinian Authority into Gaza, that gives hope to the people of Gaza, that opens up Gaza under strict supervisions and moves on as a basis for process with the Palestinians. This so far has been missed.

Goldberg: The Palestinian Authority is a fairly weak and corrupt body. Obviously Palestine itself is divided between two competing and sometimes warring parties. Why do you—you seem to have more faith in the Palestinian Authority than the average Israeli.

Herzog: Because they lead a moderate Palestinian political body. Let's be frank about it. We always love to judge everybody else's political systems. I'm not judgmental. If I have to take a decision between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, I believe in working with the Palestinian Authority, and I believe it's feasible.

And they are working. Look at the summer. Let's put it in perspective. Following the abduction of the three boys, which was a huge tragedy for Israelis and for everybody, the Palestinian Authority functioned properly. They coordinated with us [in our] efforts to find their whereabouts. They handled the situation in calming it down, despite the fact that there were many Israeli operations on the ground. Then came Protective Edge in the summer in Gaza, so before kind of always, everybody loves to term them as weak. So far, Abu Mazen survived four or five Israeli prime ministers to the best of my recollection.

Goldberg: Are you worried about the future of Israeli democracy?

Herzog: I am worried about the direction which Israeli democracy is moving into if we don't correct.

Naftali Bennett, who is a distinguished representative from the right, believes in annexing Area C [sections of the West Bank under full Israeli military control]. He believes in a deal that the world will accept unilateral steps of Israel in this direction. He doesn't answer the question, what will you do with a hundred thousand Palestinians who will become Israeli citizens?

Take the issue of Jerusalem. The recent terror attacks came from Palestinians from East Jerusalem who grew up under Israeli sovereignty with an Israeli ID card. So does it mean we will include another hundred thousand who have no loyalty to the state of Israel in the sense that they won't feel part of Israel, but rather under occupation?

There is no other choice, despite all the fears; we will have to get over those fears. We will have to try again. Otherwise, the direction that Israeli society's moving into could be bleak and that's what we are doing, in order to correct it.

And I'm worried about undercurrents that are trying to limit and contain and curtail the beautiful vista of Israeli democracy. The fact that in our parliament there is such a wide range of views, of free speech laid down by our supreme court. To me it's holy, and I'll do whatever I can with my colleagues to protect it. And there are endless efforts, and Tzipi Livni was there, as minister of justice, trying to block every week, another piece of legislation which, from the outside, for those with liberal understanding of what democracy is all about, seems incomprehensible and dangerous.

Goldberg: Israel is quite obviously a Jewish state. What's so bad about passing a law that says, Israel is a Jewish state?

Herzog: I will explain the following and I said it in the floor in the parliament when I debated with Netanyahu last week. I said that when it comes to the deal with the Palestinians, in the final-status moments, I think it's correct to say that both states are nation-states, that Palestine will be the nation-state of the Palestinian people and Israel the nation-state of the Jewish people, as it is derived from the November [19]47 UN Partition Plan of Resolution.

But this has nothing to do with what's within Israel. Within Israel, all citizens must feel they are equal, not only to say it, but they must feel it. And coming forward with this discourse, on Jewish state, treads on racist undertones, makes a feeling that somebody will be preferred on the other. The way a majority treats a minority is essential to the well-being of our society. The Arab community in Israel is 20 percent. It's comprised of all denominations of Christianity and Islam. Fascinating community—like all other communities in Israel, non-homogeneous at all. Many of them want to be part of an inclusiveness in the Israeli public life all throughout, and there are many who want to be secessionists. Our duty is to be inclusive, if you want to protect the well-being of the state. And to make anybody feel, in any form or manner, that he is not that, is not only a huge mistake; it's against the basic inherent declaration of independence of the state of Israel, which is our Magna Carta.

Goldberg: In your opinion, does Israel have PR problems, or does Israel have problems?

Herzog: Israel has both. I don't rule out the fact that we feel besieged and that the world doesn't understand us at times. However, I don't believe in the biblical proverb saying, "a people that dwells alone." We can't, in this era, dwell alone. We have to have allegiances. We have to have connections with our friends and allies. We have to cooperate together in the international arena. That's what boosts our economy and our internal strengths. And therefore we can't just go on saying to everybody, you know, crying out loud, we are the ones who are besieged.

We have our problems. We need to explain them. Yes, there is a lot of Israel hate around the world and there is a lot of anti-Semitic undertones, but that has nothing to do with the fact that we have problems we need to deal with. We have to present our policies correctly; we have to change our policies correctly.

I always compare Israel to a mid-size ship in storm waters, in high seas, that has to maneuver within those seas correctly. Our leaders in the past knew how to do it. And to get today, we are in a situation where we find ourselves cornered without any ability to maneuver. That's our main problem.

Goldberg: Let me go back to one question, because I want to get you on record as much as possible here about the peace process. We tend to think of the peace process as starting 21 years ago with Oslo. But the Palestinians or their representatives have had four or five opportunities over the last 80 or so years, starting with the Peel Commission, moving through ‘47 and then onward—

Herzog: That is true.

Goldberg: —to have a state. Each time, the offer has gotten worse, obviously, from a pure territorial standpoint. My question is, and I think this is the question that plagues the left in Israel, is, after 80 years of having the division of the land being rejected by the Palestinians or their Arab representatives—what makes you think that now, which most people see as a very inauspicious time for a revised peace process—what makes you think that now is the time to try to move towards this two-state solution?

Herzog: It's not that now is the time. It has been a long drawn-out process. Don't forget Oslo. You're ignoring a lot of things. You're ignoring the Khartoum process of ‘68 and compare it to today. It's a totally different ball game, totally different arena. Today there is an intense interfacing and discourse between us and the Palestinians, not necessarily through the leaders.

But the fear—my fear is, that within the Palestinian and Israeli camp, the peoples are losing faith in the possibility of separating and coming to the two-state solution. It was there, believe me, it was there. In 1994, during the Rabin era, there was a huge majority for it in both peoples. Unfortunately, terror on both sides led to the fact that we got into a stumbling block with no possibility of moving forward, and then we repeated it time and again.

It's the easiest thing, is to tread on the psychology of fear. Okay, my adversaries in the political system, especially from the right, tread on fear. And I'm trying to challenge that and say, we cannot live only on fear. We have to be lucid. We have to be careful. We have to protect our interests, but we must talk. It cannot be that mothers and fathers on the other side don't want peace. It boggles me why would anyone, at the age of 35, with five children, would go in the morning and commit suicide, and butcher the people he's working with all his life, in the synagogue.

Goldberg: Where does that come from?  Where does that impulse to suddenly slaughter a group of rabbis with a meat cleaver come from?

Herzog: There's no justification of it, none whatsoever. It's against any moral, legal, or human values, period. And it's shocking. Nonetheless, when you look at the whole picture, we have to analyze it, and in order to neutralize these elements, we have to bring hope. And we cannot give up on that.