Labour Opposition Leader Isaac Herzog addressing the Zionist Federation this week

Labour Opposition Leader Isaac Herzog addressing the Zionist Federation this week

On the face of it, there is not much difference between the position on Middle East peace taken by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Labour Opposition Leader Isaac Herzog, writes Joe Millis.

Both men want Israel to have a security presence in the Jordan Valley; both demand that the Palestinians recognise Israel as the “national home of the Jewish people”; and both appear to agree to a return to the pre-June 1967 war lines, with land swaps to keep the settlement blocs under Israeli rule.

However, Herzog, in London last week at the invitation of Bicom – whose former chairman Poju Zabludowicz described Herzog as a “pragmatic and future great leader of Israel” – stressed that his position was far more nuanced than that.

“I agree with Netanyahu that security arrangements are a critical condition for any agreement, but believe less and less that he wants and is capable of being the one to lead us to a political settlement,” Herzog said.

“And the demand that Israel be recognised as the national home of the Jewish people is legitimate and correct in the light of the Balfour Declaration. I wouldn’t demand it be part of any framework agreement, but rather of a final deal.”

The Labour leader, who also met William Hague and his British counterpart Ed Miliband, said he was “prepared to make peace with our Palestinian neighbours, a peace that will end a century of conflict”.

But he noted: “I am not sure he [Netanyahu] has got the mental willingness and capability of doing that. And the same thing, I’m not sure whether [Palestinian President Mahmoud] Abbas has it. He is locked into not making any compromises.”

Herzog – who is known by the nickname ‘Bougie’ given to him by his Egyptian-born French-speaking mother, Aura ­– said Netanyahu was hamstrung by his coalition as well as his own party, which had drifted towards the extreme right.

“Mr Netanyahu is much more moderate than his party,” he said. Where there was a major difference between himself and the Prime Minister, said Herzog, was on social policy.

In the past month, the Labour leader had managed to build a disparate coalition of Arab, ultra-Orthodox, left-wing Zionist and centrist parties in the Knesset that opposed three key government laws.

Herzog led the opposition in boycotting the Knesset when it voted on three bills – on raising the vote threshold for parties to enter parliament, on a referendum on any land swap for peace and the third on conscription for the ultra-Orthodox – which they claimed were anti-democratic.

Isaac Herzog with Ed Miliband

Isaac Herzog with Ed Miliband

This ad-hoc “coalition” contains the only legal Muslim Brotherhood party in the Middle East (Raam-Taal), now anti-Syrian Baathist nationalists (Balad), old school Jewish and Palestinian Communists (Hadash), as well as the as Meretz and Kadima parties.

Its focus is on the soaring housing prices and huge rises in the cost of living. Property in the centre of Israel, transport and food costs about the same as in Britain – while salaries are considerably lower.

Despite the fact that on the conscription law, the Labour leader said he would have voted in favour, his family lineage would no doubt help him forge a coalition with the ultra-Orthodox parties.

He is the grandson of Rabbi Isaac Halevi Herzog, who was Chief Rabbi of Ireland and then the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi prior to Israel’s statehood, and the son of former President Chaim Herzog. He is also the nephew of famed diplomat Abba Eban.

He said: “My coalition shattered the image that there was no alternative to Netanyahu. We created an inclusive sense of talking to both the Arabs and the ultra-Orthodox; this is the new face of multiculturalism in Israeli politics.”