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Isaac Herzog Is Netanyahu's Surprise Challenger In Israel


We're going to now hear from a critic of Prime Minister Netanyahu. Ari Shavit is a columnist and reporter for Israel's Haaretz newspaper. He's been reporting on the man best positioned to unseat him - Isaac Herzog. He's a cochair of the Zionist Union, a center left block that has emerged as a primary rival to Netanyahu's Likud Party. Shavit says Herzog is appealing to Israelis for a number of reasons, including his impeccable family pedigree.

ARI SHAVIT: Mr. Herzog's grandfather was Israel's first chief rabbi. His father was Israel's president. His uncle was the legendary Foreign Minister Abba Eban. And it goes on and on. And yet, Mr. Herzog is a very surprising presidential candidate. So what we've seen in the last few months is really the real surprise rise of Mr. Herzog from a nice guy effective, efficient but really not a presidential figure into a real national leader.

MARTIN: Why is this so? I mean, what is he running on? What is his platform? What has so endeared him to a segment of the Israeli population?

SHAVIT: Let's begin with Mr. Herzog's weaknesses. He's not a general. He's not a war hero. Unlike many of our previous leaders, he's not the kind of macho, national figure. He's not very tall. His voice is not very deep. He's not very charismatic. And therefore, what he offers this nation, which is quite striking, is a completely new kind of leadership. The secret of Mr. Herzog is that he's really a kind of 21st century leader in the sense that he works with networks. Throughout the years, he crisscrossed the country time and time again, and he built support among many people who are very different from him. And in this sense, his candidacy brings something new of the kind of multicultural, multi-tribal Israel.

MARTIN: You have outlined some very significant stylistic differences that he has with Netanyahu and past leaders of Israel. But let's talk a little bit more about the substance. What is his platform? There are some very important issues on the table right now for Israel. Where does he come down on those?

SHAVIT: He definitely comes from the center left. But he comes from the center of the center left. So he wants peace. He would try to pursue peace. But he's a realistic. And he sees - he's aware of the failures of the previous peace attempts. First step in an interview I had with him just a few weeks ago, he said should he be elected, his first action would be try to meet President Obama and to open a new page in the relationship between Israel and the United States.

His second step would be to go to Egypt to meet the Egyptian president and try to have the Egyptian moderate Sunnis have influence on the Palestinians so some sort of new kind of peace process can be created; one that builds an alliance between America, Israel, the moderate Arabs and the moderate Palestinians so we can gradually move forward.

MARTIN: Benjamin Netanyahu is running for his third consecutive term. He clearly has a lot of support among the Israeli population. Why is that? Why does he have such staying power? And why hasn't the left been able to produce a viable alternative?

SHAVIT: Until the end of 2014, Netanyahu was perceived as a prime minister that was not very loved by many people. Even his supports were not enthusiastic about him. And yet, he was perceived as the only presidential figure in the country. The reason for that is a threefold answer - stability, stability, stability. Mr. Netanyahu managed to keep - maintain strategic stability with no wars or no people getting killed on a large scale while the region was chaotic. He managed to keep the economy booming while the world was going through an economic crisis. And he managed to keep - maintain political stability within Israel's dysfunctional political system.

That changed with the Gaza war of last summer because suddenly the strategic stability disappeared, people did get killed, the economy is not doing as well as it used to, and his political coalition collapsed. So his stability factor disappeared. And what you see now is growing resentment towards Mr. Netanyahu. And this is why I think, for the first time, he's in real danger.

MARTIN: Ari Shavit is a columnist and reporter for Israel's newspaper Haaretz. He joined us from his home in Tel Aviv. Mr. Shavit, thanks so much.

SHAVIT: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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