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Israel Elections: Meet Isaac Herzog, Who Could Defeat Netanyahu

When President Obama next meets an Israeli prime minister he could be shaking hands with Isaac Herzog, the Zionist Union leader nicknamed "Boujie."
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TEL AVIV, Israel — The next time President Barack Obama meets an Israeli prime minister he could be shaking hands with the Zionist Union leader nicknamed “Boujie.”

"Boujie" — born Isaac Herzog — has enjoyed a successful campaign after promising to improve strained relations with allies and neighbors, and analysts say that if elected the well-connected attorney-turned-politician could change the tone in relations with the U.S.

Those relations have been tested in recent weeks after current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's controversial address to Congress opposing a potential nuclear deal between the West and Iran.

Before Herzog cast his vote on Tuesday, polls were suggesting his centrist alliance would have 26 seats out of 120 in the Knesset — while Netanyahu’s Likud Party trailed behind with 22 seats.

Under Israel's electoral system, no party has ever won an outright majority in the 120-member parliament. Netanyahu could still form Israel’s next government in likely coalition talks after Tuesday’s vote, but experts say that "Boujie" — as he was affectionately nicknamed by his mother — has strong credentials that would well position him to construct a coalition.

“Herzog has very impressive roots, he is the son of the former President of Israel, Haim Herzog, and is the grandson of the former Chief Rabbi of Israel,” said Shimon Shiffer, diplomatic correspondent for the Yedioth Ahoronot newspaper.

Herzog, 54, was born in Israel and as a teenager studied in New York in a private school for Jewish children, called Ramaz. He completed his Israeli army service with the rank of major in a highly-secret Intelligence unit, holds a law degree from the University of Tel Aviv and is an attorney by profession.

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In January 2005, Herzog was appointed to a cabinet position in Ariel Sharon’s coalition government. He served as Minister of Housing and Construction before becoming Minister of Tourism and, in March 2007, Minister of Welfare and Social Services & Minister of the Jewish Diaspora, Society and the Fight against Anti-Semitism.

Herzog has been chairman of the Labor Party since November 2013 and also holds the position of Leader of the Opposition. The Labor Party is running on a joint electoral list with the liberal movement Hatnuah, led by Tzipi Livni — and if Herzog wins the vote Israel's approach to key issues is expected shift.

“Herzog’s government will be less aggressive towards the U.S. and the American administration and he will try to renew the negotiations with the Palestinians,” Shiffer said. “Herzog thinks Netanyahu succeeded in destroying the informal channels and the special relations with America and will try to restore the special relationship between Israel and the American administration.”

Avraham Diskin, a political scientist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, agrees that a victorious Herzog would be welcomed by the White House.

“Herzog is likely to be embraced by world leaders since the world perceives Netanyahu and the right wing as the obstacle to peace,” Diskin said. “Obama will feel much better with Herzog than with Netanyahu, especially after latest tensions between both leaders over Iran.”

Still, winning the majority vote doesn’t necessarily mean becoming prime minister in Israel. As soon as voting ends on Tuesday, Herzog and Netanyahu’s will quickly seek support to form a coalition that can meet the required minimum of 61 seats.

Among the handful of other parties expected to be represented in the Knesset, perhaps the most significant could prove to be Yesh Atid — “There is a Future” — led by former TV news anchor Yair Lapid, which could take on the role of kingmaker in any coalition negotiations, along with the Labor-affiliated Meterz, or Energy, party.

“Netanyahu has the best chance of forming the next government,” Diskin said. “For Herzog to form a majority, he needs right wing parties to defect to the left and that is a very difficult scenario.”

Shiffer disagrees, and even believes Netanyahu won’t get more than 20 seats.

“Netanyahu was prime minister for almost nine years and for most Israelis who look at their personal situation it’s very gloomy. So Israelis are going to say to Netanyahu ‘goodbye, enough is enough.'”