October 20, 2018

In Israel, Netanyahu’s rival campaigns on U.S. Congress controversy

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s March 3 speech to the United States Congress regarding Iranian nuclear ambitions — one of the most talked-about, divisive and politicized events in the recent history of U.S.-Israel relations — has also become a key talking point for Netanyahu’s top competitor back home.

Isaac “Buji” Herzog, leader of the center-left Labor Party and Netanyahu’s rival for prime minister in the March 17 elections, has slammed the speech as avidly as any Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions activist or pro-Palestine pundit.

In a New York Times op-ed titled “Dividing the U.S. on Israel,” written by Herzog days before Netanyahu addressed Congress, he called the speech a “major mistake” that would “undermine Israel’s ability to influence the critical issue of securing a genuine guarantee that Iran will never gain access to nuclear weaponry.” Then, playing off the hype surrounding the speech in a televised interview with CNN, Herzog criticized not only Netanyahu’s appearance before Congress but also his general lack of diplomacy when dealing with delicate security matters that affect Israelis’ safety. “I think that he failed, and I’m trying to call his bluff on this,” Herzog said.

And on the evening of March 1, in an English-language address to a Tel Aviv auditorium full of ex-pats living in Israel, Herzog made Netanyahu’s Iran speech an integral part of his platform.  

“I don’t think that a speech that is divisive in terms of the internal politics of America is helping Israel’s cause,” Herzog told the crowd

Herzog slammed the “friction” that Netanyahu has created with the U.S. — “our only real staunch and strategic ally” — and promised that within the first 100 days of his own prime ministership, he would go about “strengthening the intimate relationship with the administration of the United States, recovering all the ill behavior that we’ve seen in recent months and recovering trust.”

Pacing a theater stage at the Eretz Israel Museum in north Tel Aviv, lit from above by artificial brights, Herzog appeared antsy, fidgety, yet determined to prove his strength.

“I’m very, very happy to be here to discuss my agenda and why I am the only alternative to replace Bibi Netanyahu,” he said in his opening statement. “And I intend to win.”

A Netanyahu defeat is not out of the question: The most recent polls of Israeli voters put Herzog’s “Zionist Union” (a partnership with Tzipi Livni of the Hatnuah Party) a couple of points ahead of Netanyahu’s Likud Party. And, significantly, more than 30 percent of those polled said they hadn’t yet decided who would get their vote.

Israeli campaign watchers have widely predicted that one of Herzog’s greatest hurdles in dethroning Netanyahu will be the physical differences between them. The two men cut polar-opposite silhouettes: Netanyahu is tall and boxy, with a cartoonish sneer and slow, rumbling speech; although Herzog is only a forehead shorter, his pinched facial features and tiny spectacles give him more the look of a tidy professor than a world leader.

Above all, there’s his voice. Herzog’s nasal monotone has become an integral jab in 2015 campaign sparring — so much so that Herzog’s team tried to reclaim and trivialize the issue last week with a campaign video in which the candidate lip-syncs to a manly voiceover. Israeli media outlets have reported that the prime minister hopeful is taking voice lessons.

There were no audible changes to Herzog’s speech at his March 1 address to the room of Tel Aviv ex-pats. His demeanor, though, was sharper and feistier than ever.

Herzog repeatedly asked for audience members’ names and addressed them directly. More than once, he wiggled his eyebrows. Near the end of the event, he shot a wink to his wife in the front row.

Herzog laid out his proposed domestic and foreign policy in quick, hard strokes: “If need be, I will travel to Ramallah, go into the Palestinian parliament and try to convince them that there is yet another chance,” he said. But he also threw out frequent pop-culture references and inside jokes: “Don’t you know politics? Go and watch ‘House of Cards.’ You don’t have to believe anything you hear right now.” Of far-right candidate Naftali Bennett, he joked, to wild laughter: “He’s flamboyant, and everything is simple, and he will annex 100,000 Palestinians overnight, and they will have blue IDs, and with blue IDs they will be loyal Israelis to the flag and to him.” 

And he constantly returned to Netanyahu’s speech in the U.S., using it as a symbol for all the areas of Israeli life that the prime minister had abandoned in favor of a steely security front.

“You know all too well how the rent market here is crazy,” Herzog said, promising to build tens of thousands of new, more affordable apartments. 

Before he left for the U.S., Netanyahu had tweeted: “When we talk about housing prices, about the cost of living, I do not for a second forget about life itself. The biggest threat to our life at the moment is a nuclear-armed Iran.”

Herzog’s indirect response, to his audience in Tel Aviv: “Stop selling us stories. It cannot be that Iran is the only issue of our lives.”

With a few exceptions, audience members seemed to bite. Michael Nimaroff, an 18-year-old New Jersey native in an “I <3 Buji” T-shirt, ran up to the stage once Herzog was finished to take a selfie with the candidate and ask how he could get involved in the campaign. To the Journal, Nimaroff said that Herzog was “a breath of fresh air.” His friend, a young Israeli-American, called Netanyahu’s speech in Washington an “absolute injustice in the name of the Jewish people.”

That same night, just a short drive south, along Tel Aviv’s central Rothschild Boulevard, a few dozen lefties had begun to pitch tents — an attempted revival of the 2011 social protests. “They’re constantly acting terrorized, like Iran is going to drop a bomb at any second,” said protester Gabriel Vinegered, 32, of the Netanyahu administration. “But it’s not only about the Iranian nuclear program. They don’t understand … that we can’t survive inside of their system.”

A 62-year-old taxi driver in red sunglasses, who shouted at the protesters as he drove by on Rothschild, disagreed. “Bibi is the man,” he said, smiling.

More from the cover: