- The Washington Times - Monday, March 16, 2015

He didn’t get the invitation to address Congress on Iran, but he may just beat the man who did.

Opposition leader Isaac Herzog’s center-left coalition holds a small but clear lead as Israelis head to the polls Tuesday. If he wins and is able to form a government, Mr. Herzog is expected to present a very different face to the world than the far better known Benjamin Netanyahu has over the past six years.

Unlike Mr. Netanyahu, who made last-minute pre-election headlines Monday by declaring that he no longer supports a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Mr. Herzog has long supported the idea of Palestinian statehood and has pledged during his campaign to push anew for peace talks if he is elected.

He also has said he would freeze construction on most Israeli settlements in the West Bank and go into high gear to breathe new life into Israel’s relationship with the U.S. — not just with Republicans, but with the Obama administration as well.

Mr. Herzog, 54, is known as a shrewd lawyer and able domestic politician. He has served in Israel’s Knesset for the past decade. He also has strong political bloodlines as the son of Chaim Herzog, who served as Israel’s sixth president from 1983 until 1993.

Beyond such broad-stroke facts, the world had paid almost no attention to the Labor Party head prior to last week, when it suddenly became clear that he has a good chance of becoming Israel’s next prime minister.

By the time voting booths opened Tuesday, Mr. Herzog was picking up big-name endorsements — including from such key moderates as Mr. Netanyahu’s former Defense Minister Ehud Barak.

The Zionist Union coalition that Mr. Herzog’s left-leaning Labor Party formed with former Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni’s centrist HaTnuah party was carrying a four-seat lead in the polls over Mr. Netanyahu’s conservative Likud Party.

No one disputes that the rules of Israel’s Knesset leave open the possibility of a last-minute Netanyahu turnaround. Likud could negate the pre-election polls, which predict Mr. Herzog’s party will win 26 seats to Mr. Netanyahu and his Likud Party’s 21 or 22. Mr. Netanyahu could use postelection maneuvering to fashion a majority coalition of right-wing parties. However it unfolds, the battle over who can cobble together a majority government — and ultimately become prime minister — is likely to come down to the wire.

As the prospect of a Herzog win loomed larger Monday, Ms. Livni suddenly announced that she was prepared to cede the premiership entirely to Mr. Herzog if it boosts his chance of forming a majority that can trump anything Mr. Netanyahu pulls together on the right.

Her announcement seemed to push Mr. Herzog further into the spotlight, raising the stakes for change in the Israeli government, especially on the issue of relations with the Palestinians.

Surprising choice

Mr. Herzog raised eyebrows in January when he announced that Amos Yadlin would be his first choice for defense minister.

The former Israeli military intelligence chief and 30-year Israeli air force veteran is no doubt qualified, but his approach to the Palestinian issue differs starkly from Mr. Netanyahu‘s.

The Netanyahu government promoted a continual expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, but Mr. Yadlin said Israel should be taking proactive steps to withdraw from the West Bank regardless of the state of peace negotiations with the Palestinians.

That position has angered many on the Israeli right, and Mr. Netanyahu appeared eager to exploit that anger during last-ditch appeals for support from his base ahead of Tuesday’s vote.

Mr. Herzog, meanwhile, has consistently criticized Mr. Netanyahu for damaging Israel’s standing in the world by taking an abrasive posture toward the nation’s allies, specifically Washington.

He leveled a particularly bitter assault at Mr. Netanyahu during an interview with Israel’s Channel 2 News in June, asserting that the prime minister’s attitude toward Mr. Obama was hostile and damaging to Israel.

An account of the interview by The Times of Israel said Mr. Herzog slammed Mr. Netanyahu for failing to listen to the international community, failing to present peace proposals of his own for an accord with the Palestinians and failing to work properly with Mr. Obama.

Mr. Herzog, however, does not always disagree with Mr. Netanyahu and is not an all-out dove on national security matters.

At the height of weeks of battle last summer between Hamas and Israel, Mr. Herzog supported the Netanyahu government’s decision to conduct airstrikes and ground raids on Hamas targets in Gaza.

The campaign drew criticism from some on the Israeli left, but Mr. Herzog told the BBC at the time that “if you want to make peace, you have to be ready for war.”

He also appears to be in agreement with Mr. Netanyahu’s positions on Iran. There “is no daylight” between the two on the issue, Mr. Herzog wrote in a New York Times op-ed last month.

Where there is disagreement, he wrote, is in the way Mr. Netanyahu has conducted himself on the issue diplomatically. It was “a major mistake,” Mr. Herzog wrote, for the prime minister to have agreed to address Congress on Iran at the invitation of Republican leaders without consulting first with the Democratic U.S. president.

He suggested that it was dangerous for Israel to create “the false impression that our interests are allied with only one American party or interest group.”

“We should be reaching out to all Americans — Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, hawks and doves,” Mr. Herzog wrote.

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