Interview: Isaac Herzog
A scion of one of Israel’s leading families, Isaac Herzog left his private law practice for public service only after his father, Chaim Herzog, retired as Israel’s president. At 44, he surged ahead of many more experienced leaders in the Labor Party elections and, in the wake of the newly formed Likud-Labor coalition government, now finds himself minister of housing and construction, one of his party’s most powerful Cabinet seats. The issues on which he feels most passionate are social justice, the environment, combating drugs and the pursuit of peace.
Q. Your rise in the Labor Party seems to represent a changing of the guard. What does it mean for Labor and for Israel?
A. Many members of our party and its central committee are a mirror image of Israel’s history. From the Palmah days, those who fought in the War of Independence—they represent all layers of Israeli society. They wanted to show that there is an exciting future for the party, not just an honored past. There is a younger generation emerging. In this sense I enjoyed a serious boost. Of course, I should not overlook some of the quarrels inside our [Labor] family; we benefited from the windfall created by some of that infighting [among the older generation].
Q. How does it feel to be empowered by, and to some extent beholden to, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon?
A. It is very interesting. I have high regard for Mr. Sharon and his family and his team. I look at him with considerable admiration. He is heading into a major challenge that very few leaders in modern history have faced. Despite many pitfalls and shortcomings along the path, in the end it is a challenge that is bound to protect the unequivocal Jewish majority of a Jewish democracy in Israel. I give him full support for that. I must say that I was quite awed in the first meeting of the [new] government. I was surrounded by Likudniks who have attacked many of us around that Cabinet table… We, Labor and Likud…the two major Zionist forces, [are] joining hands to deal with the major challenges that lie ahead.
Q. Your ministry is one of the most important. What are your strategic goals?
A. I have identified three and will add others later on. Why did I opt for this portfolio? Because it has a very significant social-welfare side. I want to make sure every citizen of Israel has a shelter and a home. That is not easy these days, and there are tragedies reported in the newspapers almost every day. Secondly, I want to ignite and fully support development in the Negev and the Galilee, areas that have suffered tremendously in the last few years, especially insofar as housing…[is] concerned. In Beersheba there are 3,000 apartments standing empty. Why? Because there is no incentive to buy there. People buy almost exclusively in the center of the country, which is crazy.
[People moved to Beersheba] because of the grant policy that we always supported for citizens willing to buy there, to lower the cost for their mortgage. Incredibly, these supports were abolished when [Benyamin] Netanyahu and Sharon took over. [Labor] criticized these changes sharply. Now I want to find the right plan to reignite the market in that region.
I also see a prime responsibility to help Sharon implement the disengagement from Gaza; my ministry will be heavily involved in building new villages and townships for evacuated settlers.
Q. A British firm was recently chosen by the government to apply its innovative programs to turn welfare recipients in Jerusalem into productive workers. Why have you been a strong backer of the American “Wisconsin Plan”?
A. I think the Wisconsin Plan is a very important experiment, which, if applied in the right ways, can…enable many more people to work for salaries rather than accept public support. The trial program will target 19,880 hard-core unemployed, with 7,315 in Jerusalem. By dealing with these individuals as special needs, the plan seeks to prepare the individual for work through both social and employment-training programs.
Q. Can Israel trust Mahmoud Abbas (a k a Abu Mazen), the new Palestinian Authority president?
A. The answer is yes. I would even say that we can trust him [a lot]. Abu Mazen is a moderate, serious person who needs to be strengthened against the radicals to be able to turn him into a partner for negotiations. In his brief time in office he has already demonstrated that he is moving [the Palestinians] in the right direction with good practical steps. It is in our clear interest to encourage him to keep moving in this direction.
Q. You have long been on the forefront of Israel’s war on illegal drugs. How would you describe this problem?
A. There is a serious problem of drugs and, unfortunately, it is growing. We are talking about a 15-percent exposure. In some other Westernized countries the rate is double that. In the United States it is about 10 to 15 percent. We have about 300,000 drug users, of whom approximately 50,000 to 60,000 would be considered addicts. This problem strikes all layers of society, including the religious community.
There is also a serious problem in the immigrant community, where there is a certain alienation factor that gives rise to more youths using drugs because they don’t feel part and parcel of their new, open society. It is a psychological phenomenon.
Q. What drugs are we talking about?
A. Marijuana is, of course, the beginning, but there is a growing usage of ecstasy, which has practically become an Israeli industry. Frighteningly, some hard drugs are more and more finding their way into some of our religious communities.
But it’s not that there is no hope. It requires a huge uphill battle constantly fought, and always with sufficient resources to get the job done.
Q. One looks at your grandfather, Isaac Halevi Herzog, Israel’s first chief rabbi; your father, Chaim Herzog, Israel’s 6th president; scholar and diplomat uncle Yaakov Herzog and other members of your family. Are the Herzogs Israel’s Kennedys?
A. (laughs) I was waiting to get that question. People ask me if I am a prince. I am very proud of my family heritage. I see myself as carrying on the torch of generations. I also believe there is something in my family’s values that cares for the people and dedicates one to public service. I personally avoid status symbols and just hope to serve in the most fitting manner.
By the way, people don’t like princes so much. So-called princes typically have to work hard to get to where they are. I relate to that, and I have worked very hard to get to where I am now.
Q. When your father ripped up the “Zionism-is-racism” declaration in the United Nations General Assembly it was a stirring moment and a defining one for many of us. How did that influence you?
A. It has always been a formative experience for me to know where Israel stands and where we ourselves stand as individuals. I take a staunch position for Israel no matter where I am, and definitely look to communicate our positions and values to the world. Anything I can do to expose the positive side of Israel and its good case, I will do.
Q. You served in Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s administration as Cabinet secretary. Do you believe that a freshman Cabinet minister from the minority party can make a difference?
A. I can truly say that I showed by initiating important Knesset laws that one member of that body can make a difference. I am proud of two “right of participation” laws in particular. These dealt with disabled children’s rights and capabilities, ensuring their inclusion in the regular school system. Also, the law I passed to help support the needs of the South Lebanese Army soldiers was an important and moral one. As I did in the Knesset, I firmly believe I can also do in the Cabinet.