Can Isaac Herzog Repair the U.S.-Israel Relationship?

Netanyahu and Obama have been battling for years. Israel's potential new prime minister will have a chance to hit the reset button.

Israeli Labor Party leader and co-leader of the Zionist Union list for the upcoming general election, Isaac Herzog talks with citizens on the phone to try to convince them to vote for them, at the party headquarters in the Israeli coastal city of Tel Aviv, on March 15, 2015, two days ahead of the elections. AFP PHOTO / JACK GUEZ        (Photo credit should read JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images)
Israeli Labor Party leader and co-leader of the Zionist Union list for the upcoming general election, Isaac Herzog talks with citizens on the phone to try to convince them to vote for them, at the party headquarters in the Israeli coastal city of Tel Aviv, on March 15, 2015, two days ahead of the elections. AFP PHOTO / JACK GUEZ (Photo credit should read JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images)

Israeli opposition leader Isaac Herzog has overcome widespread questions about his charisma, leadership skills, and toughness to pull ahead of incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in an election that may be among the tightest in the country’s history. If he wins Tuesday’s vote, though, the hard work will just be getting started.

The final slate of polls show Herzog’s center-left Zionist Union block winning four more seats than Netanyahu’s Likud Party, with the prime minister’s controversial speech on Capitol Hill two weeks ago appearing to have hurt his standing among voters worried that Netanyahu has done lasting damage to Israel’s relationship with the United States.

Herzog has tried to capitalize on those fears by promising to focus on repairing Israel’s frayed relationship with the White House and to avoid the kinds of public brawls over Iran or the peace process that have been a hallmark of Netanyahu’s dealings with President Barack Obama. Herzog, a scion of one of Israel’s most prominent political families, accuses Netanyahu of turning Israel into a wedge issue in American politics and threatening to alienate the country’s most important overseas ally. He is promising to depart from Netanyahu’s confrontational grandstanding and prevent a wider collision between the two governments.

“The first order of business for this government will be to restore the U.S.-Israel relationship,” Erel Margalit, the chair of field operations for the Zionist Union and a senior member of the Labor Party, told Foreign Policy. “You’ll see a categorically different style. We need our closest ally for security’s sake and everything else.”

Media exit polls published on Tuesday afternoon claim the race is to close to call and suggest that the Likud and Labor parties outperformed expectations vis-a-vis the country’s smaller parties.

Netanyahu has spent recent months crisscrossing the world to criticize the Obama administration’s ongoing nuclear talks with Iran and warn that a deal would pose an existential threat to his country and other American allies in the Middle East. Back home, however, many voters have been telling pollsters that they are far more concerned about economic issues such as income inequality, affordable housing, and Israel’s skyrocketing cost of living.

Those issues play to Herzog’s strengths, since he lacks Netanyahu’s military background — the prime minister was a commando in one of the country’s most elite units — or perceived toughness on national security. Herzog, who previously served as minister of welfare and social services, has unveiled an economic plan aimed at reducing poverty, helping single parents, and lowering the cost of housing.

Beyond the pocketbook issues, though, Herzog’s message about renewing the “sacred bond” with Washington also seems to be resonating with Israeli voters. Herzog’s Zionist Union — a merger between the venerable Labor Party and former Justice Minister Tzipi Livni’s centrist Hatnuah Party — is projected to win 24 seats compared to Likud’s 20. The Knesset as a whole is expected to have a rightward tilt, which means Netanyahu could still cobble together a winning coalition and remain in power. Either way, few analysts expected Herzog to be putting up this much of a fight, let alone having a viable path of his own to the prime ministership.

“I have always suffered from a certain underestimation,” Herzog told CNN on Monday, “and I have always surprised.… I will surprise again, and I will show my leadership and stamina.”

Herzog’s recent gains have brought hope to Democratic supporters of Israel in the United States who view Netanyahu with suspicion because of what they see as his long-standing, if tacit, support for the Republican Party. Those concerns began in 2012, when the Israeli leader repeatedly injected himself into the presidential race in a way many perceived as favoring Republican candidate Mitt Romney over President Obama. Netanyahu appeared in a political TV advertisement embracing Romney, but later denied any coordination on the ad. According to Israeli reports, U.S. officials relayed to senior Israeli officials that “in the eyes of the Democratic administration, Netanyahu is perceived as campaigning on behalf of Mitt Romney.”

The tension boiled over this year when Netanyahu coordinated a joint address to Congress with Republican House Speaker John Boehner and failed to notify the White House, despite numerous meetings with U.S. officials prior to the announcement. During his address earlier this month, Netanyahu railed against the president’s nuclear negotiations with Iran — a moment of political theater that House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi called an “insult to the intelligence of the United States.”

If Netanyahu loses, Herzog will be able to take a step that could immediately improve relations with the White House: replacing current ambassador Ron Dermer, who many administration officials see as a crypto-Republican who helped orchestrate Netanyahu’s Capitol Hill speech. Dermer has only been in the job since September 2013, but his tenure has been colored by charges of partisanship almost from the beginning.

Some of Herzog’s key policy views are also much more in line with Washington’s than Netanyahu’s. Take the establishment of a Palestinian state, a long-standing goal of the administration. Netanyahu has previously voiced support for a two-state solution, but on Monday he made a strong appeal to the country’s far right by saying he would prevent the creation of a Palestinian state.

“I think that anyone who is going to establish a Palestinian state today and evacuate lands is giving attack grounds to the radical Islam against the state of Israel,” he said in an interview. “Anyone who ignores this is sticking his head in the sand. The left does this time and time again.”

When asked if that meant he would prohibit the establishment of a Palestinian state if re-elected, he said, “Correct.”

That view contrasts sharply with America’s long-standing bipartisan support for a two-state solution, but it also clashes with Herzog’s stated position. Within his first 100 days in office, the Labor Party leader has promised to focus on renewing peace talks with the Palestinians.

But that’s just the beginning.

Herzog would likely implement a number of policies that Netanyahu refused outright, such as ending the withholding of tax revenues to the Palestinian Authority, a step Netanyahu has taken periodically in recent years and implemented again after Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas applied for membership in the International Criminal Court. Some inside and outside of Netanyahu’s own government warn that the move threatens to bring the cash-strapped Palestinian Authority closer to economic collapse.

“I would think the first thing Herzog would do is release the funds,” said Ilan Goldenberg, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and a former member of the Obama administration’s Mideast peace team. “That’s just something that has to be done for basic sanity and security.”

Goldenberg also said Herzog may do other things Netanyahu has been unwilling to do, such as putting in place a limited settlement freeze or finding new ways to improve the economic situation in Gaza by loosening restrictions on items allowed in the territory.

Limited steps are not likely to satisfy the Palestinians, who have grown increasingly hopeless about the prospects for peace with any Israeli government.

“We have experience with both Labor and Likud,” Maen Rashid Areikat, the chief representative in the United States of the Palestine Liberation Organization, told FP. “It doesn’t matter who will be in power after March 17 unless the Israelis understand that this status quo cannot continue…. There has to be a Palestinian state.”

While few predict that Herzog, or any viable Israeli leader, will break the impasse with the Palestinians, a departure from Netanyahu’s settlement policies could go along with repairing ties with Washington. Since the early days of the Obama administration, U.S. officials have repeatedly criticized Netanyahu for approving settlements on land the Arabs — and the international community — consider space for a future Palestinian state.

Herzog and Obama wouldn’t see eye to eye on all issues. He and other members of the Zionist Union have repeatedly raised skepticism about the Obama administration’s nuclear talks with Iran, for instance, a key driver of acrimony between Netanyahu and Obama.

Margalit said Herzog won’t hesitate to air differences with Washington both “openly and quietly” on Iran. But he emphasized that it would be in a “style of dialogue and discussion” rather than public saber-rattling. “This is a delicate matter and we know that,” he said.

Still, there is enough potential common ground between the two leaders that a Prime Minister Herzog could have some clear success repairing ties with Washington. He’d also have a big advantage “by nature of not being Netanyahu,” said Goldenberg, and not having the intrinsic distrust of the White House.

If he wins, “I would hope we just go back to business as usual where both parties strongly support Israel,” said Goldenberg.

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