With polling ahead of next week’s parliamentary elections giving Labor Party Chairman Isaac Herzog a chance of unseating Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Herzog’s campaign is shifting gears to overcome complaints, even from supporters, that he lacks the charisma and gravitas to hold the job.
That’s meant that in the last few days of the campaign, with Herzog projected to control four more seats than Netanyahu in the new parliament, Herzog is fighting for votes not just with a party platform that blames spiraling housing costs on Netanyahu’s administration but also with voice lessons, public beer drinking and a campaign poster on which his image has been altered to emphasize his wrinkles, gray his hair and thicken his stubble.
“People gave him the nickname the Bar Mitzvah Boy,” said political analyst Tal Schneider, a reference to the Jewish coming-of-age ritual that usually takes place at age 13 or so. “People look at the photographs and say, ‘This is a leader?’ ”
It isn’t as if Herzog, who’s 54, lacks relevant experience. A lawyer and former Cabinet minister, he comes from a long line of notables. His father, Chaim Herzog, was Israel’s sixth president. His uncle was the legendary diplomat Abba Eban. His grandfather was the first chief rabbi of Israel.
But their weighty legacies don’t show on Isaac Herzog’s face. He has few wrinkles. His eyes seem wide open with boyish wonder.
Herzog’s youthful looks were on the mind of photographer Yanai Yechiel when he shot what’s become Herzog’s election image during his bid for leadership of the Labor Party.
“We did this photo in a field, to look like an Israeli, like the salt of the earth,” Yechiel recalled. “He was photographed in the natural light of the sunset. So you have to squint your eyes because of the blinding sun. When you squint you get wrinkles.”
Even the result of that squinting had to be heavily tweaked in campaign materials to lend extra years to Herzog. Schneider said she knew Herzog personally and was impressed by the result, which “made him look like more of a visionary, and old.”
The wizened campaign picture came after a public debate over whether Herzog’s slightly nasal, alto voice was gravelly enough for office.
Herzog took voice lessons. He released a campaign commercial featuring his face but dubbed with a rough, baritone voice that listed his military service and his achievements in government, and finished with, “The reason some of you still haven’t decided if you’re going to vote for me is my voice.”
Earlier this month Israeli Channel 2 host Modi Bar-On asked Herzog whether Israelis didn’t need someone with “a thick voice and stories from the trenches.”
“I think the Israeli public is ready to receive a responsible, prudent leader who is willing to make decisions, who is not only rhetoric and show,” Herzog answered.
He may be right. Herzog’s physical shortcomings stand out against Netanyahu’s larger figure, booming voice and muscular talk of security. But Herzog, relatively anonymous before this election, carries little of the baggage Netanyahu has accumulated over his three terms in office.
A state comptroller’s report released in late February showed the price of housing had spiraled 55 percent from 2008 to 2013. Netanyahu said he’d inherited a housing crisis; his rivals said he’d done nothing to abate it. These figures have only been exacerbated by a report on the Netanyahus’ personal spending, including a $2,000-a-month bill for cleaning the first couple’s private residence in the seaside town of Caesarea.
The cost of living in Israel has galvanized even stalwarts of Netanyahu’s Likud Party against its leader.
“It’s the economy,” said Yaakov Tzuberi, owner of a Yemenite bakery in central Tel Aviv. Tzuberi said he’d voted Likud or for the hawkish Israel Our Home party for years but planned to veer left and vote for Herzog on Tuesday.
Netanyahu deflected criticism of his economic policy by playing up his security credentials. Campaign videos from Likud show Islamic State militants crossing into Israel with help from left-wingers. “The left will bring terrorism,” his advertisement proclaimed.
But on Wednesday, top intelligence and military brass gathered in Tel Aviv to issue a damning judgment of Netanyahu’s performance.
Shabtai Shavit, former head of the Mossad intelligence agency, said Netanyahu’s heavy-handed approach to the Iran nuclear negotiations had diminished Israel’s relationship with the United States and threatened the country’s security.
“You and only you have changed the United States from an ally to an enemy,” Shavit said of the prime minister.
Schneider, the analyst, said the coming vote was a referendum on Netanyahu.
“I think the Israeli people didn’t really go deep into the thinking of, ‘Who is Herzog?’ ” she said. “They might be surprised next Tuesday to find they voted off Netanyahu and maybe they voted for someone who they don’t know.”
Polls on Thursday gave Herzog’s party 26 seats compared with Netanyahu’s 22 in the 120-member Knesset. Winning the most ballots won’t automatically make Herzog prime minister; he’ll have to compete with Netanyahu, a wily political survivor, to cobble together a coalition of 61 lawmakers.
On a campaign walk through Tel Aviv’s Carmel market Thursday, Herzog seemed to channel masculinity as he and running mate Tzipi Livni navigated vegetable stalls. He took a bite out of a bunch of parsley. He grabbed a zucchini from a pile and tossed it to the merchant.
Pickle seller Yaakov Schulman said he was considering voting for Herzog. “I hear that he’s a leftist, that all the Arab parties will unite with him, and it doesn’t make me happy,” Schulman said. On the other hand, he said, “The security situation, the economic situation; it’s all a disaster.”
Among those who don’t trust Herzog, Netanyahu is not a clear alternative. Chantal Ben-Sasson, 55, a secretary from Tel Aviv, said Herzog “doesn’t look like a man with power,” and she planned to vote for Likud rebel Moshe Kahlon, who started the Kulanu party to cut down big banks and bolster the middle class. “We’ve had enough Bibi. We need a change,” Ben-Sasson said.
Herzog and Livni stopped for lunch at Sami’s Parliament, a Labor Party stronghold in the middle of the market, where they downed Carlsberg beer straight from the bottle – before sipping freshly squeezed carrot juice.
After the politicians left, owner Sami Rahmani, 72, said he’d definitely vote for Herzog and Livni, as he’d voted Labor all his life. Asked whether Herzog had charisma, he answered, “It will come to him.”