Israel's Herzog: Labour's diplomatic answer to bombastic Bibi

Jerusalem (AFP) - If voters are looking for the polar opposite of Israel's current prime minister in Tuesday's election, main contender Isaac Herzog certainly fits the bill.

Modest, diplomatic and with a strong political pedigree, centre-left Zionist Union chief Herzog could hardly be more different from the bombastic "Bibi" -- Benjamin Netanyahu.

Some have even accused Herzog of lacking charisma, but the 54-year-old lawyer says that after three consecutive terms of Netanyahu, the time has come for a change.

"When I ran for the leadership of the Labour party, they said: He has no charisma, no chance... and when I said a year ago that I would be the alternative to Netanyahu's government, they laughed at me," Herzog recently told the left-wing Haaretz newspaper.

"Just as I surprised everyone in the past, I am going to surprise everyone this time too.

"This moment is my moment."

The only realistic challenger to rightwinger Netanyahu, Herzog -- whose Labour party has joined forces with the centrist HaTnuah to form the Zionist Union -- will on Tuesday face the ultimate test as Israelis head to the polls to choose a new leader.

After six years of Netanyahu, Israelis are yearning for something new, with months of electioneering reduced to one pithy if unofficial slogan: "Anyone but Bibi."

Recent polls have shown the Zionist Union pulling ahead of Netanyahu's Likud and likely to win a handful more seats.

Still, Herzog is making an ambitious bid for the leader of a party that has not fielded a winning candidate since 1999 and whose historic prominence as Israel's main political force in the first three decades after independence has faded to a distant memory.

And even if he does win, it could be a Pyrrhic victory, with experts agreeing that unlike Netanyahu, Herzog will struggle to piece together a government coalition.

- A political pedigree -

A lawyer by profession, Herzog was first elected to the Israeli parliament, or Knesset, in 2003 and spent a decade working in series of cabinet portfolios until taking over the leadership of crisis-hit Labour in November 2013.

Becoming premier would be a fitting career path for the Tel Aviv-born politician, a scion of one of Israel's most prestigious families -- sometimes referred to as Israel's version of the Kennedys.

His Irish-born father, Chaim Herzog, served as head of military intelligence then went on to become Israel's ambassador to the United Nations and finally the nation's sixth president, from 1983 to 1993.

His uncle Abba Eban is a famed Israeli diplomat and statesman who served as envoy to Washington and the UN before becoming Israel's foreign minister during a period which included the 1967 Six Day War.

Herzog's grandfather and namesake -- Rabbi Yitzhak (Isaac) HaLevi Herzog -- was Israel's first Ashkenazi chief rabbi.

Herzog spent several years at school in New York during his father's posting overseas, before returning to Israel, serving as an officer in army intelligence and eventually reading law at Tel Aviv University.

Before entering the Knesset, he served as government secretary under Labour premier Ehud Barak, then from 2005 held portfolios including housing, tourism and welfare.

Under Labour predecessor Shelly Yachimovich, the party focus turned to social issues at the expense of its historic involvement in the Middle East peace process.

But in the 15 months since taking the helm, Herzog has tried to steer it back towards peace, holding talks in Ramallah with Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas just 10 days after he was elected.

Herzog has pledged to revive peace talks with the Palestinians, which collapsed almost a year ago, telling Haaretz he was even prepared to "remove" Israeli settlements if necessary.

He has also vowed to implement comprehensive social and economic reforms and work to rehabilitate Israel's relationship with US President Barack Obama, which has frayed under Netanyahu.

Married with three children, Herzog still lives in the house where he grew up in Tel Aviv and answers to the nickname "Bougie" -- reportedly given him by his Egyptian-born mother who mixed the French word for doll "poupee" with its Hebrew equivalent "buba".