Hilik Bar, secretary-general of the Israeli Labour Party, is sitting puffy-eyed in his Knesset office. As the party’s organisational head, last week’s primaries were his responsibility and he is still catching up on lost sleep.
A first-term MK and only 38 years old, Mr Bar has eaten, slept and breathed Labour politics since his childhood in Safed as the son of the city’s Worker’s Council leader. Mr Bar went on to become a student union chairman and city councillor in Jerusalem.
Even he, however, is astonished at the huge 17-point margin by which Isaac Herzog — known in Israel as ‘Buji’ — ousted incumbent leader Shelly Yachimovich.
“I said on the eve of the primaries that it was close and I wouldn’t be surprised if Buji wins,” he says. “But I could never have predicted this margin.”
In retrospect however, he finds it easily explainable. “Buji’s victory came on two levels. First, personally. Buji was born in this party, he grew up within the system and he knows thousands of veteran members at grassroots levels.
“Two years ago, when people elected Shelly, it was in many ways a vote for an outsider, in the hope she could revive the party’s fortunes. It didn’t work and they decided to go back to the most familiar candidate.”
As secretary-general, Mr Bar remained neutral in the leadership elections, although many in the Herzog camp believe he was co-operating with Yachimovich. He is frank, however, about both the failings and successes of the former party leader.
“Buji won on a second level and that was his insistence that the party had to emphasise its diplomatic policy, which was almost hidden away in the last elections.” Mr Bar admits that Yachimovich’s platform “turned away many of the party’s old voters who want Labour to fly both flags, defence and diplomacy, along with social and economic affairs. On the other hand, this was the first election since 1992 in which Labour gained Knesset seats. Shelly was the first person in 20 years to reverse the downwards trend.”
wimp or street-fighter?
“Buji’s baby-face and good manners make him seem like a wimp,” says one Labour MK. “And if you look at his biography, it certainly looks like he was to the manor born. But if he managed to defeat Shelly Yachimovich by a 17-point margin, then you have to believe that under that mild- mannered exterior lies the mentality of a street-fighter.”
Labour members are certainly hoping that is the case as they contemplate the election of yet another leader tasked with dragging the party that founded Israel out of its decline.
In many ways, Isaac “Buji” Herzog, 53 (right), does not look like the ideal candidate to achieve that. There is no other politician in the Knesset who is such a scion of the old establishment. Son of President Chaim Herzog, nephew of legendary foreign minister Abba Eban, grandson of a chief rabbi, former partner in the largest law firm in Israel — it goes on and on. But today’s Labour has scant regard for tradition and Mr Herzog would not have got where he is just through patronage.
His political career started when Ehud Barak appointed him as cabinet secretary in 1999 and in 2003 he was elected to the Knesset. And from 2005, with Labour popping in and out of the coalition, filled a series of ministerial posts including housing, tourism and social services.
In his campaign, it was Mr Herzog’s personal touch — he toured party branches, spoke p ersonally with thousands of members — that seems to have won the day.
After 17 years out of power and a series of bombastic yet unsuccessful chiefs, Labour has chosen a quiet, softly-spoken leader for a change.