Grandson of a chief rabbi (Yitzhak), son of a president (Chaim), and nephew of a foreign minister (Abba Eban), Isaac “Buji” Herzog is an Israeli political prince who’s now out to claim the crown. Graciously.

Ehud Barak’s cabinet secretary in his 30s, a member of Knesset since his early 40s and a cabinet minister in his mid 40s, Herzog, still baby-faced at 53, won control of the Labor Party from Shelly Yachimovich last month and, in an interview, firmly rejects the conventional wisdom that Israel’s middle ground has shifted too far to the right for him to take one final step up, from leader of the opposition to prime minister.

Herzog’s rise has not been effortless. A Tel Aviv- and Cornell-trained lawyer, he had a run-in with Israel’s legal authorities when he was investigated over alleged breaches in party funding rules during Barak’s Labor leadership, asserting his right to remain silent and avoiding prosecution. Labor was not handed to him on a platter; a previous leadership bid had failed. And he acknowledges that he is seen as a bit of a “geek” — mild-mannered, soft-spoken, unthreatening, book smart. No stirring, ultra-charismatic, populist orator he.

Herzog also inherits a party that, if its recent knives-in-the-back political history is any guide, will ditch him in the next couple of years in its desperate quest to regain the leadership of the country. Running Israel was Labor’s natural role for the first three decades of statehood; it has now failed to win an election since 1999, when Ehud Barak ended Netanyahu’s first prime ministerial stint.

Characteristically affable and courteous during our conversation in his expanded Knesset quarters, Herzog seems far from fazed by the unpromising context. He says his surprise triumph in the Labor race — and it most certainly was a surprise, with Yachimovich presumed to be a shoo-in to retain the post — indicates that some people, at least, are looking for leaders who don’t “scream and yell and scare and turn things upside down.” He does not believe that the consensual Israeli mindset has shifted too far to the right for Labor to regain control. And, critiquing Netanyahu for “trading on the fears of the Israeli public” regarding Iran and the Palestinians, rather than giving them hope and a sense of common purpose, he believes that if the prime minister “doesn’t go for any peace process,” the Likud party “will have nothing to say in the elections. And we definitely will be the alternative.”

Isaac Herzog (photo credit: AP/Dan Balilty)

Isaac Herzog (photo credit: AP/Dan Balilty)

Isaac Herzog, no more Mr. Nice Guy? Well, not exactly. He immediately follows that assertion by adding that he hopes Netanyahu will try to make a go of negotiations with the Palestinians, and that Labor will back any such genuine effort, even if that benefits the prime minister and stymies Herzog’s own national leadership ambitions. “In a way I’m shooting myself in the foot,” he says disarmingly.

Herzog has begun his term as Labor leader in a blitz of diplomatic and political activity. In the past two weeks he’s met with President Barack Obama (briefly), Secretary of State John Kerry and his team (at more length), Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Middle East Quartet envoy Tony Blair and others. He was quick to slam Netanyahu for holding a televised meeting with Jerusalem’s top officials in the immediate aftermath of the weekend storm, deriding the session — at which the prime minister gravely listened to updates from various officials, and gave them praise and guidance — as a self-serving “publicity stunt” that was inappropriate given that tens of thousands of Israelis still had no electricity. He castigated ministers for giving an initial green light to legislation that would curb tax breaks on foreign government funding of Israeli NGOs that call for Israel boycotts.

He’s also, in some contrast to Yachimovich, making himself available for interviews and, in complete contrast to his predecessor, comfortable doing so in English. Edited excerpts:

The Times of Israel: Let’s talk about possible coalition shifts (as mentioned by Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid) now that you’re heading the Labor Party.

Isaac Herzog: I am leading the opposition and my aim is to replace the government. To create a viable alternative for the people of Israel, a center-left alternative, a bloc that will comprise Labor at its center and cooperate with other movements and parties to get a new horizon for Israel. Having said that, as I kept saying during my campaign — and I won a major vote of confidence — if Netanyahu makes a bold step for peace, we will be there to help.

From inside or outside the coalition?

It can be from the outside, as a safety net. It can be from the inside. But I am not rushing to say, “Hey, I’m here. Now, who pays me?” Forget it.

My aim here is to help. I made it clear to my American hosts, and of course to the prime minister and to the Israeli public, that this is a vital moment. I believe there’s a golden opportunity. The efforts of the United States are commendable. John Kerry has put in enormous effort. Where else would you see the secretary of state come every week, dealing with the nuts and bolts of a possible deal?

We don’t exactly know exactly what has been discussed. But the president hinted at some of it, and Kerry hinted at some of it, in their [recent] Saban Forum speeches, which were excellent. Therefore, if there is a major breakthrough that will require helping Netanyahu to get a majority in parliament and get the deal done, Labor will definitely help him.

What needs to happen for a breakthrough?

It has to be a recognition of the vision of the two-state solution, based on the Clinton parameters – the ’67 borders plus swaps, with the idea of annexing settlement blocs and special arrangements in Jerusalem. Moving clearly towards an understanding with the Palestinians on a deal, the contours of the deal.

You don’t think Netanyahu is signaling and making steps in that direction?

The common knowledge in Israel doesn’t believe that the prime minister is willing to go so far. And the common knowledge also, in Israel, is perhaps that Abbas is not willing to go so far.

If Netanyahu, for example, said that beyond the security barrier and outside the blocs he will not be encouraging any growth in settlements — that’s the kind of signal you mean?

We’re not talking about that. Rather, does he accept that we are talking about ’67 borders plus swaps? I don’t know.

I don’t know whether Netanyahu can cross his party. So before people turn to Labor and say, ‘Hey Buji, are you coming in?’ I say, ‘Hey guys, there’s no reason to. First let me know whether Netanyahu has his own party with him.’

Thus far, whatever blocked the capability of Netanyahu to move towards a peace process with the Palestinians was a clear, small but very dramatic gap between him and Abbas on the formula — on ’67 plus swaps, which is part of the Clinton parameters. And because [Netanyahu refused to negotiate on that basis], he had to pay a different price. First he paid with the settlement freeze for nine months [from November 2009 to September 2010], when Abbas neglected to reply to this gesture. And then he went to the prisoner release [of 104 long-term Palestinian terrorist convicts, in the framework of the current negotiations] because he couldn’t do the settlement freeze either [with the current coalition].

I don’t know whether Netanyahu can cross his party. So before people turn to Labor and say, ‘Hey Buji, are you coming in?’ I say, ‘Hey guys, there’s no reason to. First let me know whether Netanyahu has his own party with him.’

So that’s the key? Netanyahu has to come out and say, Yes, I’m prepared to negotiate on the basis of ’67?

I don’t want to say something which will ruin things and I don’t know what the facts are [in the negotiations]. This is one of the examples of what needs to be agreed upon in order to reach a breakthrough.

By the way I have no clue whether he has his party [with him], and whether [Foreign Minister Avigdor] Liberman is with him as well. If you look at the numbers, today there are 59 members of the Knesset who clearly support the peace process from within the coalition and from without, including 11 Arab members. But Netanyahu has to bring most of Likud into the deal, because he would not want to base it solely on the left or on the Arab bloc.

Newly elected Labor leader Isaac Herzog meets with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah. December 1, 2013. (Photo credit: Issam Rimawi/FLASH90)

Newly elected Labor leader Isaac Herzog meets with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah. December 1, 2013. (Photo credit: Issam Rimawi/FLASH90)

Talk to me about Abbas, because you have been suggesting that Israel has a partner. From everything that you see from the outside, absolutely not.

We had a tete-a-tete meeting, and thereafter a meeting with a group. I came [to Ramallah] with two [Labor] members of the Knesset, Erel Margalit and Omer Bar-Lev. I found him very energetic, and on some issues that were raised, very innovative.

I don’t know how Abbas negotiates with Kerry. Take the issue of security arrangements. Apart from some basic rules, security arrangements are something that run very deep in terms of the details. I told Abbas that it is really vital for Israelis to have adequate security arrangements. And, by the way, it’s vital for him too. I wouldn’t interpret every Israeli presence here or there [in the West Bank] as something that really violates the spirit of the agreement. On the contrary.

[When I met Abbas] he was waiting to see the American proposal [on West Bank security arrangements]. Kerry came last week, with a detailed proposal of General John Allen, four-star general, a huge expert on security matters, who ran the forces in Afghanistan. I’m not informed as to the details of this proposal. But if I were Abbas and if I were Netanyahu, I would say, okay, let’s talk about it, because it may serve as a possible basis.

You are adamant he is a partner, even though, to the outside world, he hasn’t been flexible on the refugee issue. As far as we know from the Palestine Papers and so on, he’s not even okay with Israel retaining Efrat…?

No, no, no. Everyone in the Israeli political system likes to have his own interpretation of Mahmoud Abbas. Sometimes it’s what he says in Arabic, sometimes it’s what he says in English. Abbas, to his credit, came out on Channel 2 [last year] and said, I waive my dream of going back to Safed. Without negotiating or getting a deal, he hinted at something quite dramatic.

Immediately the right jumps up and says yeah, but he said this thing and that thing [in other interviews and appearances]. That’s because he’s in politics. We’re all in politics. The guy said something from his heart that was very important. We saw it as a signal.

 The fact that Kerry radiates cautious optimism means that he’s gotten somewhere

Thereafter Abbas agreed, together with the Arab League, on the principle of [land] swaps. Kerry got the parties to agree to the principle of swaps. What does that mean? That at the end of it, all the settlement blocs will stay intact. How big a size? We don’t know. Abbas, these days, of course, reminisces about [former prime minister Ehud] Olmert’s proposal [for a peace deal, which Abbas neither accepted nor rejected]. But that’s off the table, and one needs to have a new configuration.

What do you make of the fact that he didn’t jump at that Olmert proposal (for a 100% Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank with one-for-one land-swap adjustments; dividing Jerusalem; and an international trusteeship replacing Israeli sovereignty in the Old City)?

Well, I can’t judge him. There are assumptions that say that he knew that Olmert was a lame duck and therefore he couldn’t accept it. He never rejected it. And there are others saying he never wanted to do a deal. I tell Netanyahu and I tell the Israeli negotiators: If you don’t think that he means business, prove it, unravel it. Expose him.

By doing what — offering something similar to Olmert?

Offer something. I wouldn’t say “like Olmert” because I don’t think it’s necessarily possible. But offer something substantial. And see if he accepts it.

At the opening of the [current] process, Abbas and Netanyahu were far away, both of them not trusting each other, and I could see no way there was any hope. Now the Americans, especially John Kerry, in a zestful mode of negotiations, gained the trust of both of them.

Whether Kerry’s gotten a deal, I don’t know, but the fact that he radiates cautious optimism means that he’s gotten somewhere. None of us know. It could take weeks, perhaps months. As the head of the Israeli opposition, we see peace as very important and we will support it.

One last question on this. What is there in the Olmert offer that you think is not possible or goes too far?

Well, I don’t know whether Netanyahu can accept all of the parameters of Olmert, and I think it was a very bold offer. The Palestinians termed it as a fair offer at the Saban Forum. A lot depends on what will be the fate of the settlements. Does it mean removal or does it mean leaving them within the Palestinian state, at least some of them?

Is there any scenario in which you could leave Jews living in settlements inside a Palestinian state?

Yes, there is a scenario. I will remind you that Netanyahu even mentioned it once in a speech in a joint session of the Senate, where he said there will be settlements which may stay in a Palestinian state. There could be. It depends on security arrangements.

Now, of course there are still huge problems ahead. Number one – what happens with Gaza? I’ve asked Abbas. He claims, of course, as he said to the public: that at the end there will be a political process on getting both sides of the Palestinian state together, including by way of elections. We have to wait and see. Right now the Egyptians are a very constructive element in this.

Let me ask you about Iran: The interim deal seems appalling. Among the reasons why I think that is that I’ll be amazed if they reach a permanent deal. I think the Iranians are just going to string it along. It hasn’t even taken effect yet, for goodness’ sake. We see that they’re getting legitimacy for enrichment. They haven’t been forced to admit that they have a nuclear weapons program. Now tell me why I’m wrong.

Let’s put the other side. It’s not the best agreement, but it’s also not the worst. It’s an interim structure of a phased out-process to get to the deal. Either you could get to the deal by way of a one-sided knockout, bringing the Iranians to their knees and saying, here’s the deal, which Obama said frankly is not possible. Bearing in mind the Iranian political structure and national pride, it is very complicated. On the other hand, the Iranians did radiate a message that they’re willing to move to a deal for many good reasons – mostly the sanctions.

So the structure formulated by this international coalition of the P5+1 — aimed also at ensuring the P5+1 did not evaporate — was, in the interim phase, a complete halting of the 20 percent enrichment, which is already a major step; placing the 3 ½ percent under very strict daily supervision; and Arak slowing down. Now, in return, there could be a certain change on the other side which we cannot read. None of us knows what’s happening in the triangle that’s leading Iran today. Not only [Supreme Leader] Khamenei, but [President] Rouhani and [Revolutionary Guards strongman Qasem] Soleimani. We know that there is a major internal debate. Enrichment became an issue of national pride, so Obama is trying to defuse that.

If the Iranians violate the agreement, that may give Netanyahu much more justification, both internally and internationally, to take a military stand

I support Netanyahu in his adamant quest for a clear resolution, halting the Iranian nuclear program. However, I think that once there was an agreement by the P5+1, his response was too aggressive. It wasn’t sophisticated enough. It didn’t serve the purpose of trying to surf on the [interim] deal and get to the final goal, which is the six-month stage where we need to work on the nitty-gritty. Luckily, the [Israel-US] atmosphere calmed down after Netanyahu and Obama had a conversation. [Israel's National Security Adviser] Yossi Cohen and his team in Washington need to work on all the details [with the Americans].

There is one more benefit to this structure: that if, all of a sudden, there is a dramatic increase in the activities of the Iranians, there will be full justification for a military attack. If they violate the agreement, that may give Netanyahu much more justification, both internally and internationally, to take a military stand.

Why do you say Netanyahu? Why wouldn’t Obama attack?

Or Obama. Or the Americans.

Is it feasible that the Americans would resort to force?

There is a lack of trust in certain quarters in Israel on two things – whether America will attack as a final alternative, and whether America will stay in the region. Does it see itself as a superpower or is it closing in on itself? Well, my impression right now is that America is not closing in on itself at all. It’s operating in Libya, in Yemen, in Afghanistan, in the Gulf — a huge amount of troops. It’s active in the Middle East peace process, dealing with Iran. I don’t think one can expect more than that.

Perhaps what [caused this lack of trust] was the fact that instead of attacking Syria [amid the summer's chemical weapons crisis, Obama] reverted to Congress and thereafter [President Assad's] chemical stockpile has been liquidated. Perhaps this didn’t sound as aggressive as one would want, but the end result is positive.

The Americans keep on saying, Yes, this [military] option is on the table and we mean it. Kerry came out at the Saban Forum and said, We will not allow Iran to have a nuclear weapon. I can’t argue with that now. What’s needed now is full coordination with America on the next six months.

Every poll, every assessment says you cannot become prime minister, that the center left in Israel cannot regain power.

I don’t think Israel is as right-wing as some think. The Israeli people, justifiably, have innate fears from lessons of the past. They would want a leader with my kind of vision – an unequivocal Zionist vision, that cares for Israel, that would like to see Gush Etzion as part of Israel, very, very much. But also a liberal Israel, that recognizes the multicultural changes in our society and enables every group to have its dream realized.

You know I was blamed for looking like a geek, but perhaps what people are looking for are serious leaders, who behave in a more civil manner, who think cautiously about things and take decisions in a professional manner, and less people who shoot from the hip, and scream and yell and scare, and turn things upside down.

Herzog announces his candidacy for the Labor leadership, Tel Aviv, August 26, 2013. (Photo credit: Roni Schutzer/FLASH90)

Herzog announces his candidacy for the Labor leadership, Tel Aviv, August 26, 2013. (Photo credit: Roni Schutzer/FLASH90)

I can see the results [in my leadership victory]. I see how much I gained for Labor since I took over.

But that’s within the Labor demographic.

My vision is to ally with many more forces in order to have a bloc that creates an alternative.

Has Labor become misperceived as being more incautious and more leftist than it traditionally has actually been? Yitzhak Rabin was not a radical dove.

I’m not a radical dove either. I’m known for being very centrist in my views and opinions. I’m what you’d call a bit’honist (a Labor security hawk) in many of the activities in which I was part of the decision-making process during six years in the security cabinet, including decisions [whose details can be reported] only in the foreign press.

Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog with his predecessor Shelly Yachimovich, in the Knesset on November 25, 2013. (Photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog with his predecessor Shelly Yachimovich, in the Knesset on November 25, 2013. (Photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The social economic agenda is very strong with Israelis, and for this I have high respect for Shelly Yachimovich, because she made it a clear-cut vision. Except that it was the only flag, and I’m talking about a multitude of flags.

I call it the Herzog effect: The fact that I entered the scene with some new agendas led to the announcement of Yesh Atid, of Lapid, that he insists on a peace process, and led to a certain tremor in the political system and to various alternatives that can bring a breakthrough which is to my mind important, historically, to the people of Israel.

Obviously one of the things that hurt Yachimovich was the perception that there was no real policy on the diplomatic front.

Exactly.

Are you trying to recruit credible security figures to join Labor?

Yes. During my campaign, I was assisted by and consulted with many security people. I presented a platform which I worked on with a few well-known generals. I brainstormed with them. I spoke with experts on American affairs and experts on foreign affairs.

Since I was elected I was approached by many interesting figures. Not the same names that you hear, but more names, of people who want to come back to Labor. It was their home. Or they see it as a place to join. I welcome everybody.

Netanyahu’s message is constantly based on fear, trading on the fears of the Israeli public

It was mentioned, without my intervention, that [Nadav Gantz], the son of the chief of staff, joined us. I don’t want to embarrass anyone: the chief of staff himself is not part of this. But it’s an example of interesting people from all spheres of life that are interested in joining. Mayors, regional council heads. People who went to Kadima. People who are in Likud. Social leaders and generals.

Are any of the generals happy to have their names out there, people like ex-IDF military intelligence chief Amos Yadlin or ex-chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi…?

The people whose names are public as part of the team that I consulted with include Amiram Levin, who was deputy chief of staff, and Yitzhak Harel, who was head of the IDF planning directorate. I did seek the advice of Amos Yadlin on certain issues. I did seek the advice of Giora Eiland on certain issues. That doesn’t mean that they are in politics. But these are examples of people who were happy to work with me. Professor Eitan Gilboa was part of it. Colette Avital. All sorts of people who came and gave their advice. Also on economic issues, I consulted with Aviya Spivak, who was deputy governor of the Bank of Israel.

Is Netanyahu doing a lousy job as prime minister?

Netanyahu is not coming forward with any true vision of what the State of Israel would look like in a generation or two. Nothing. I think he’s locked into the same paradigms.

There are things for which I commend the government. But on the overall: First, I beg to differ with the government [on socio-economics], with the three heads of the government, Lapid, [Naftali] Bennett and Netanyahu. All three of them come from the same school of thought economically while I’m a social democrat.

Secondly, I think that some of Netanyahu’s message is constantly based on fear, trading on the fears of the Israeli public. It does help him in the polls — speaking on Iran, as the father of the nation. But this constant music of sirens may have a negative, adverse effect on young Israelis who are looking for a hopeful and more pleasant future in the country.

We shouldn’t be that scared?

We need to be on the alert. We need to have very strong military might.

You need to give some hope to the people — a sense of common purpose. Creating a much stronger social fabric, dealing with the social gaps, dealing with poverty, strengthening the middle class — are all part of a vision that Netanyahu is not offering. What he is continuously working upon is the Iranian issue. Now that’s important. But you cannot only live on that.

Is Netanyahu scared of confronting the settlers? Or is he really with them, and doesn’t want to do the deal?

I don’t know. I’m not an interpreter of Benjamin Netanyahu. But I think that the tragedy of Likud now is that there is quite a strong lobby of the settlers that skews the Likud’s order of priorities. There are so many other topics that not everything in the settlements has to be the most important issue of the day. I find some of my colleagues, ministers in the Likud, haunted by constant pressure from this settlement or that settlement, or from that lobby, instead of dealing with the general problems of the state of Israel. That’s the problem of Likud.

And I tell you, if Netanyahu doesn’t go for any peace process, they will have nothing to say in the elections. And we definitely will be the alternative. In a way I’m shooting myself in the foot, but I would like very much to work towards a peace process.

Isn’t it too late? There aren’t too many Israelis who are too entrenched in places in Judea and Samaria? We’re not going to tear ourselves apart trying to implement any future deal?

I don’t think it’s too late. We need to be innovative enough and open enough to ideas. So some settlers may have to be relocated to settlement blocs. It’s not the end of the world if we offer it smartly. And some may stay under Palestinian sovereignty.