With the entire US political world focused on the Republican presidential debate last night, US senator Chuck Schumer quietly announced that, after much deliberation, he will vote against the nuclear energy deal negotiated between Iran and the P5+1 (the five members of the UN Security Council plus Germany).
If Schumer thought his Thursday night announcement would fly under the radar, he was wrong — and US secretary of state John Kerry was quick to say that he ‘profoundly disagrees’ with Schumer. With Senate minority leader Harry Reid retiring after the 2016 election, and with Democrats in a very good position to retake control of the US Senate in 2016, there’s an exceedingly good chance that Schumer will be the Senate majority leader in less than 18 months’ time. Moreover, he’s one of the leading Jewish voices in American politics and, as a senator from New York, the US state with the highest proportion of Jewish voters in the country.
So it’s not surprising that Schumer, a longtime ally of Israel, would reject a deal that Israeli prime minister Benjmain Netanyahu fiercely opposes. (Though New York’s junior senator, Kirsten Gillibrand, announced her support for the Iran deal earlier this week).
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Schumer was careful to telegraph that he will not be working very hard to convince other Democrats to break ranks with the administration, and that’s probably the wisest course for someone who still wants to become the Democratic leader in the Senate after angering the party’s leftists. There’s no doubt that Schumer’s opposition will embolden the deal’s critics, and it may convince a handful of Senate Democrats to oppose the deal. But the Obama administration still believes opponents of the Iran deal will not achieve the 60 votes that they need to defeat it in the US Senate — or the 67 votes they would need to override Obama’s veto.
Chief among Schumer’s problems with the deal is the fact that after 15 years, Iran could conceivably be free of both international sanctions and restrictions on its nuclear energy program, thereby giving it the ability to build a nuclear weapon: Continue reading Schumer’s right — if Iran wants nukes, the US can’t deter it indefinitely
Within a half-century, the most important fact of the Obama administration might well be that it presided over an energy boom that de-linked, for the first time in many decades, US dependence on Middle Eastern oil and foreign policy.
No other fact more explains the deal, inked with the Islamic Republic of Iran, that brings Iran ever closer into the international community — and no other fact brings together so neatly the often contradictory aspects of US president Barack Obama’s policy in the Middle East today.
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With the exception of a small peak in the mid-1980s, when prices tanked after the oil shocks of the 1970s, US imports of foreign oil are lower than ever — and that’s a critical component to understanding Tuesday’s deal between the P5+1 and Iran. Thanks, in part, to the shale oil and fracking revolutions, US oil reserves are at their highest levels than at any point since 1975. Bank of America’s chart (pictured above) shows that US dependence on foreign oil — net imports as a percentage of consumption — dropped to 26.5% by the end of 2014.
Making sense of the Obama administration’s Mideast contradictions
One of the sharpest criticisms of the Obama administration is that it has no overweening strategy for the region. On the surface, the contradictions are legion. To take just three examples: Continue reading One chart that explains Obama era Middle East policy
At nearly the last hour, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu finalized the smallest possible coalition possible.
After Netanyahu’s foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman resigned on Monday and announced that his Russian-interest, secular nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu (ישראל ביתנו, ‘Israel is Our Home’) would head into opposition, it left the prime minister scrambling to build a government with a Wednesday night deadline looming.
Having secured agreements with Moshe Kahlon’s center-right Kulanu (כולנו, ‘All of Us’) and with two ultraorthodox parties, it left Netanyahu and his center-right Likud (הַלִּכּוּד) dependent on the final right-wing party, Bayit Yehudi (הבית היהודי, ‘The Jewish Home’) to form a working coalition. Kahlon, a former Likud communications minister, will serve as the government’s finance minister, is particularly concerned with policies to reduce inequality and rising domestic prices.
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With just eight seats (four fewer than in the previous Knesset) and hard feelings between Netanyahu and the Bayit Yehudi leader, Naftali Bennett, Lieberman’s decision suddenly gave Bennett much more negotiating power. Without Bennett, Netanyahu would not have a majority; Israel’s president Reuven Rivlin could thereupon turn to the leader of the opposition, Isaac Herzog, to seek an alternative government coalition.
The result was a poisonous 48 hours of negotiation between the Netanyahu and Bennett camps, with Bennett angling to win the all-important justice ministry for Ayelet Shaked and, perhaps, improving his own ministerial portfolio from education to the foreign ministry. With Likud’s ranks already grumbling about handing over the education ministry to Bennett, Netanyahu’s allies were downright furious — and embarrassed — to cave to Bennett on the justice ministry. It’s an important post because it will allow Bayit Yehudi to demand changes to the Israeli supreme court and it will give Bayit Yehudi the power to shape the appointment of Israel’s next attorney general.
Bennett, who served as Netanyahu’s chief of staff briefly in the 2000s, headed a pro-settler organization in the West Bank before assuming Bayit Yehudi’s leadership in 2013. The religious, right-wing Zionist party is in favor of greater settlements, and Netanyahu’s lurch rightward during the election campaign was designed to steal its voters to Likud’s ranks — a gambit that seemed to work.
In Netanyahu’s previous government, Bennett served as economy minister, though he enhanced his profile during the Israeli offensive in the Gaza strip in the summer of 2014, criticizing Netanyahu for not taking even stronger action to thwart Hamas.
The deal salvages Netanyahu’s third term as prime minister, but it comes at a huge cost. With just 61 MKs, Netanyahu can be held hostage in the future over any piece of legislation or government action by a single member of his own coalition. Just a couple of rebels could conceivably bring the government down, which could force a new government or fresh elections. After such contentious negotiations, moreover, trust between Netanyahu and Bennett, never strong, is at a nadir. Likud officials are already telling the Israeli media that they’ll seek ‘revenge’ for Bennett’s ‘extortions.’
To make matters worse, Bayit Yehudi is not entirely united behind Bennett’s leadership, and members of the even-harder-right ‘Tekuma’ faction were demanding that their leader, Uri Ariel, be given the justice portfolio instead of Shaked. For now, however, Ariel seems to be happy with the agricultural ministry.
Netanyahu still has another week to win a formal vote of confidence from the 120-member Knesset. But Netanyahu’s first task will start immediately — to build out his existing coalition on an ASAP basis so as to reduce the possibility of political blackmail or even to push Bayit Yehudi out of government altogether.
The most tantalizing option would be for Netanyahu to convince Herzog to form a ‘national unity’ government with the Zionist Union (המחנה הציוני), a coalition between the center-left Labor Party (מפלגת העבודה הישראלית) and a bloc of moderates led by former justice minister Tzipi Livni.
For now, Herzog has been adamant that he will not join any government headed by Netanyahu, and he was quick to criticize the instability of Netanyahu’s latest coalition:
Herzog criticized Netanyahu’s newly formed government shortly after it was announced Wednesday night, saying in a statement that the 61-seat coalition “lacks responsibility, stability and governance.” He called it a “national disaster of a government. A weak and narrow government, susceptible to blackmail, that will advance nothing and will quickly be replaced by a responsible and hopeful alternative.”
Netanyahu purposefully held open the foreign ministry position with an eye to convincing Herzog to join a national unity government.
But if Herzog cannot be convinced to do so within the months ahead, Netanyahu might try to split off a handful of Labor hawks or the faction loyal to Livni, who most recently served as Netanyahu’s justice minister between 2013 and 2015.
Netanyahu’s former finance minister, Yair Lapid, is adamant that he will not return to an alliance with Likud, especially after Netanyahu agreed to the ultraorthodox parties’ request to revisit the crackdown on exemptions from military service for religious students. But that doesn’t mean Netanyahu can’t try to poach several members of Lapid’s centrist Yesh Atid (יש עתיד, ‘There is a Future’).
His final option, and perhaps the easiest of all, is to find a way to soothe his onetime ally Lieberman’s concerns and bring Yisrael Beitenu back into government.
Foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman was once so close to Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu that the two political leaders joined forces to fight the 2013 elections on a joint ticket. When Lieberman stepped down as foreign minister in 2012 pending resolution of charges of fraud and breach of public trust, Netanyahu held the foreign affairs portfolio himself, with every intention of re-appointing Lieberman to the position when Lieberman was subsequently cleared of the corruption-related charges.
That makes it all the more spectacular that Lieberman announced Monday that he was resigning his office and that his party, the secular nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu (ישראל ביתנו, ‘Israel is Our Home’), would not be joining Netanyahu’s next governing coalition, throwing the prime minister’s plans for a third consecutive term into disarray.
With 48 hours to go before Netanyahu has to assemble a government, he now has to deal with the loss of six seats that have reduced his expected coalition to a bare majority of 61 of the Knesset’s 120 seats — not to mention a sudden fight to replace Lieberman as foreign minister. Netanyahu’s decision, rushed though it may be, will set the tone for Israel’s troubled relations with the United States and with Europe. Moreover, without Yisrael Beitenu, Netanyahu’s government could collapse on the whim of a single MK, including hard-line allies on the Israeli right.
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That’s renewed the growing speculation that Netanyahu might be forced, either now or in coming months, to seek a national unity government with the largest opposition party, the Zionist Union (המחנה הציוני), a coalition between the center-left Labor Party (מפלגת העבודה הישראלית) and a bloc of moderates led by former justice minister Tzipi Livni. The Zionist Union’s leader Isaac Herzog reiterated his refusal, however, to join a Netanyahu coalition. Though Netanyahu won a two-week extension to form a government from Israeli president Reuven Rivlin in late April, Herzog will likely have his chance to form a government if Netanyahu fails to do so before the May 7 deadline.
Lieberman, for what it’s worth, blamed Netanyahu’s concessions to the haredi parties that seek the repeal of laws passed by secular lawmakers in the prior government to reduce military exemptions for ultraorthodox students and liberalize marriage laws, which made official Jewish weddings much easier for Russian immigrants who vote for Yisrael Beitenu. Lieberman also challenged Netanyahu’s toughness on Gaza, and he bemoaned the way that Netanyahu and allies abandoned a controversial bill to proclaim Israel a ‘Jewish state.’ Many commentators in Israel were quick to ascribe more cynical motives to Lieberman, who had once harbored dreams of succeeding Netanyahu as prime minister, and Likud officials vented their fury with Lieberman. Continue reading Lieberman resignation rocks Israeli coalition talks
Today’s announcement of a deal between Iran and the ‘P5+1’ countries, with a final June 30 deadline looming, is being met with cautious optimism today as the European Union’s chief foreign policy official Federica Mogherini, Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif and US secretary of state John Kerry all make statements about the deal from Lausanne, Switzerland.
The key to the deal? Iran will be permitted to enrich fuel for its civil nuclear energy program, including the use of centrifuges, though not to the level necessary to build a nuclear weapons program. Furthermore, Iran has agreed with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to monitor and diligence all current and past nuclear operations to uncover the extent of any Iranian determination to build a nuclear weapons program.
It will certainly rank, if it’s finalized, as one of the top foreign policy accomplishments of US president Barack Obama.
From The New York Times:
According to European officials, roughly 5,000 centrifuges will remain spinning enriched uranium at the main nuclear site at Natanz, about half the number currently running. The giant underground enrichment site at Fordo – which Israeli and some American officials fear is impervious to bombing – will be partly converted to advanced nuclear research and the production of medical isotopes. Foreign scientist will be present. There will be no fissile material present that could be used to make a bomb.
The deal is sure to bring howls from its opponents, including many skeptics in the United States, including Congressional Republicans and many Democrats as well, and Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has said that any deal must preclude Iran from any enrichment. But as negotiators from the P5 + 1 — the five members of the United Nations Security Council and Germany — and Iran work through the details of the deal in the next three months, it seems more likely than not that the deal will be finalized, opening the way to lifting international sanctions against Iran imposed by the United Nations (if not exactly all the sanctions currently in place by the United States).
So who ‘wins’ and ‘loses’ in this deal? Here’s a look, starting with the winners: Continue reading Winners and losers in the Iran nuclear deal
After Israeli president Reuven Rivlin finished talks with all of the country’s parliamentary parties on Monday, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu was set to amass a governing majority in a six-party coalition that will easily prove more right-wing than either of Netanyahu’s governments following the 2009 and 2013 elections.
While coalition talks are not likely to begin until Wednesday, when Rivlin formally asks Netanyahu to begin negotiations, the contours for the next government seem clear.
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It’s worth taking a moment to state just how right-wing the ‘Netanyahu IV’ government will be.
In 2009, when Netanyahu returned to the premiership after a decade-long stint in the wilderness, his coalition included a former center-left prime minister, Ehud Barak, and the other traditional Israeli party, the Labor Party (מפלגת העבודה הישראלית).
In 2013, after a long round of negotiation talks, Netanyahu ditched the ultraorthodox haredi parties in favor of two moderates — Tzipi Livni, a centrist and former foreign minister and Yair Lapid, the leader of the secular centrist Yesh Atid (יש עתיד). Lapid, who would serve for two years as finance minister, demanded that Netanyahu eschew the haredi parties, especially in light of a contentious debate about the exemption of haredim from the Israeli Defense Forces.
Today, however, Netanyahu is set not only to welcome those ultraorthodox parties back into government, but to exclude Labor, Yesh Atid and any other real centrists. For all the hand-wringing among Israeli allies, most especially the United States, over the past six years of Netanyahu’s dominance, Netanyahu’s third consecutive term will be something like ‘Netanyahu squared.’
Lapid, Livni and the Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog have all ruled out joining a Netanyahu government, to the dismay of centrists (including, allegedly, Rivlin) who would prefer a more balanced government with a ‘national unity’ flavor.
The six parties aren’t firmly set yet, but all of them, representing 67 members of Israel’s unicameral, 120-member parliament, the Knesset (הַכְּנֶסֶת), recommended Netanyahu as the new prime minister and, accordingly, all six are expected to take part in the next Netanyahu government: Continue reading Netanyahu set for six-party, right-wing coalition
As the results started to trickle in early Wednesday morning (Jerusalem time), the world started to get a better sense of the verdict of Israeli voters in the country’s second general election in three years.
Exit polls that initially showed the two leading camps tied turned out to be wrong — the results showed that Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s center-right Likud (הַלִּכּוּד) won a bloc of 30 seats in the Knesset (הַכְּנֶסֶת), Israel’s unicameral parliament.
That’s in stark contrast to polls that showed that the Zionist Union (המחנה הציוני), a merger between Isaac Herzog‘s center-left Labor Party (מפלגת העבודה הישראלית) and a bloc of moderates led by former justice minister Tzipi Livni, would emerge as the largest party. It instead won just 24 seats.
So what do these election results tell us? Continue reading Israeli election results: eight things we know after Tuesday’s vote
- Replace the word ‘Arab’ with ‘African-American.’
- Replace the words ‘Likud’ and ‘Labor’ with ‘Republican’ and ‘Democrat.’
- Replace the military reference to calling up the Israeli Defense Forces reserves to a generic ‘national security state of emergency.’
Here’s what you get:
The right-wing government is in danger. African-American voters are coming out in droves to the poll. Left-wing organizations are busing them out. We are in a national security state of emergency, we have only you. Get out to vote, bring your friends and family, vote Republican in order to close the gap between us and the Democrats. With your help and with God’s help.
If any politician in the United States made the statement above, he or she would be hounded out of office and out of public view — and rightly so.
Remember that Netanyahu here was referring to Israeli Arabs, not Palestinians in the West Bank or Gaza. He’s referring to the 20% (or so) of Israeli citizens that are Arabs, many of whom are Muslims, but some of whom are Druze or Christian as well. It’s not a message that rests well with the notion that Israeli democracy is healthy and thriving.
Though it may bring more right-wing voters to the polls, it seems even more likely to arouse Israeli Arab, long among the most apathetic voter groups in the country, to support the newly united Joint List, a merger of all four Arab parties, running together for the first time under the leadership of socialist attorney Ayman Odeh.
Netanyahu’s verbal strike comes hours after he revoked his formal support for a two-state solution to Israeli-Palestinian peace. Netanyahu is stuck in a fierce battle in his bid for reelection against the center-left Zionist Union, a merger of Isaac Herzog’s Labor Party and a faction led by former justice minsiter Tzipi Livni. Polls show that the Zionist Union may edge out Netanyahu’s center-right Likud to win the largest number of seats. But that won’t necessarily guarantee a Herzog-led government, which will depend upon days or weeks of coalition consultations with Israel’s many political parties.
No matter who wins Israel’s election tomorrow, no party is expected to win more than a fragment of the seats necessary to win a majority in Israel’s unicameral 120-member parliament, the Knesset (הַכְּנֶסֶת).
That means that for days and, likely, weeks after the voting ends, Israel will be caught up in the battle to form a new governing coalition. That process will begin as soon as Tuesday, when Israel’s president Reuven Rivlin begins talking to party leaders to assess who should have the first shot at forming a coalition.
That individual, whether it is current prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu or Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog, will then have 42 days to build a government that can win at least a 61-vote majority in the Knesset.
The bottom line is that Israel and the world could be waiting a long time for a new government, though Rivlin is said to be anxious to speed the process along. That, in part, will depend on Israel’s many parties.
Rivlin, previously the speaker of the Knesset and, until his presidential election last year, a member of the center-right Likud, will have some discretion in naming a prime ministerial candidate, but it will almost certainly be the leader whose party wins the most votes in Tuesday’s election (unless a clear majority of other party leaders, over the course of presidential talks, support the second-place winner to lead the next government).
So how to keep track of the various coalition possibilities?
Suffragio‘s guide to the Israeli political parties and each party’s compatibility with every other party, as determined on a subjective scale of four degrees. Here’s what each of the colors mean: Continue reading The definitive chart to deciphering Israel’s coalition negotiations
In 31 years, Shas has joined the opposition just twice, including a stint between 2003 and 2006. It’s been out of government since 2013, not out of its unwillingness to work with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who hopes to win a third consecutive mandate on March 17, but because of opposition from Yair Lapid, who joined Netanyahu’s government as finance minister.
In the current election, however, a recent split between the two men who have led Shas for the past quarter-century now holds massive consequences for whether Netanyahu will win a fresh mandate as prime minister. The split risks not only diluting the haredi vote in the upcoming elections, but could also complicate the already difficult arithmetic for any leader to achieve a governing majority in the Knesset (הכנסת), Israel’s 120-member unicameral parliament. Ironically, the split on the ultraorthodox right comes at the same time that Israel’s Arab parties have united into a single movement.
Aryeh Dery served as Shas’s leader in the 1990s and held several top positions, including minister of internal affairs. He was convicted of bribery in 2000, however, and ultimately served 22 months in prison. Eli Yishai replaced him as Shas leader and, for the next 13 years, followed Dery’s lead of bringing Shas, more often than not, into government. Yishai (pictured above, left, with Dery, right) served as deputy prime minister under each of Ariel Sharon, Ehud Olmert and Netanyahu.
Dery’s return to politics, however, caused a personal rift between the two leaders. Dery muscled his way back to the Shas leadership in 2013, which precipitated Yishai’s decision last December to form a new party to contest the 2015 elections, Yachad (יחד). The differences between Dery’s Shas and Yishai’s Yachad are subtle. Both parties appeal to the haredi right, and both continue to draw support primarily from Sephardic Jews.
Though Shas is widely and accurately described as a party of the haredi, the ultraorthodox Jews in Israel, it is also traditionally a party that appeals chiefly to Sephardic Jews, which hold just a slight majority among Israel’s Jewish population, though the Ashkenazi Jewish population, which has roots primarily in Eastern Europe, has grown, in large part to an influx of Russian Jews after the fall of the Soviet Union. Today, however, the Sephardic label applies not only to the Sephardic tradition that developed on the Iberian peninsula, but to the wider group that includes Maghrebi Jews from north Africa and Mizrahi Jews from the Middle East.
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In the current campaign, Dery has emphasized social and ethnic solidarity, with slogans as blatant as ‘Mizrahi votes Mizrahi.’ Nevertheless, Yachad still appeals to core Shas voters, and Yishai has capitalized on the impression that he is the more authentic standard-bearer of the late rabbi Ovadia Yosef, who served until his death in December 2013 as Shas’s spiritual guide. Videotapes emerged late last year of Yosef critizing Dery in 2008 in very harsh terms.
But Yachad is also targeting disappointed voters of Bayit Yehudi (הבית היהודי, ‘The Jewish Home’). In joining Netanyahu’s most recent government as economy minister, its leader Naftali Bennett (himself a former chief of staff to Netanyahu) was sure to disappoint some of his most conservative supporters. But Bennett often criticized Netanyahu in the last two years for not being aggressive enough in Israel’s offensive against Gaza, his Jewish Home party sits to the right of Netanyahu’s Likud (הַלִּכּוּד) on most issues, and Bennett has been a leading proponent for Jewish settlers in the West Bank. Polls predict that his party will maintain or even improve its 11-seat caucus in the Knesset.
Yachad is angling to the right of Bennett, however, and the second member on Yachad’s party list is Yoni Chetboun, a renegade MK who found himself too far right even for Bennett’s Jewish Home. Yishai hopes to become to Bennett what Bennett has become to Netanyahu — a more credible right-wing voice. This constant race rightward among the fragmented Israeli right is one of the chief reasons that Netanyahu is now struggling to hold the premiership, and it explains why his recent speech in Washington was aimed more toward right-wing voters in Israel than to moderates or even to US politicians.
While Yishai declared his support for Netanyahu’s premiership back in December, Dery has been more coy about his intentions. In a country where post-election coalition-building has become just as important as elections themselves, promises aren’t worth much after March 17. Both parties would clamor to join a broad-based unity government that includes both Likud and the center-left Zionist Union (המחנה הציוני). Perhaps the worst-case scenario for the religious parties is a split, whereby Dery ultimately backs Herzog and Yishai backs Netanyahu. That could dilute the once-formidable leverage that the Sephardic haredi once deployed through Shas. More importantly for international affairs, that could even make it impossible for either bloc to amass a majority.
As Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu travels to the United States to deliver a controversial address to the US Congress on Tuesday morning, he’ll leave behind him in Israel (if only for a couple of days) one of the toughest election campaigns of his career.
The Washington speech has sucked up much of the attention from Israel’s election campaign, both in the United States and in Israel itself. But that doesn’t guarantee that Netanyahu will win what would be a fourth term as prime minister and his third consecutive term since returning to power in 2009.
Netanyahu’s center-right Likud (הַלִּכּוּד), consistently since December, has been tied in most polls with the Zionist Union (המחנה הציוני), a merger between the center-left Labor Party (מפלגת העבודה הישראלית) and a bloc of moderates led by former justice minister Tzipi Livni, herself the former leader of the late Ariel Sharon’s essentially defunct Kadima (קדימה, ‘Forward’).
Though Israeli politics has become a dizzying array of fragmented, personalized parties, where political leaders denounce opponents one day only to join forces with the same opponents the next, Herzog and Livni both support a more progression economic agenda as well as the ‘two-state’ solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The Zionist Union’s combined support means that Labor’s newest leader, Isaac Herzog, has emerged as the top alternative to Netanyahu to become Israel’s next prime minister. A soft-spoken attorney, Herzog isn’t known for his charisma or his bluster, and his chief quality might be that he’s regarded as the quintessential anti-Netanyahu, at least in style.
So how did Herzog (pictured above) get to this point? And what would a Herzog-led government look like?
Herzog wants to end Labor’s wilderness period
Though the Labor Party hasn’t won an Israeli election since 1999, it nevertheless has a storied legacy — it’s the party of Golda Meir, of Yitzhak Rabin, of Shimon Peres. Herzog himself is the son of Israel’s sixth president, Chaim Herzog, and he studied in New York in the 1970s when his father was serving as Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations. Herzog is Labor’s fourth permanent leader in a decade, and he hopes to lead Labor to its most successful election victory since the 1999 parliamentary elections under former prime minister Ehud Barak. Continue reading Who is Isaac Herzog? A look at Israel’s opposition leader