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Feb 24, 3:12 PM EST

Israeli challenger Herzog a determined underdog


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JERUSALEM (AP) -- Isaac Herzog would have faced an uphill climb even in a country without huge security problems and a history of placing its trust in tough guys. But he is running for prime minister in Israel.

Lawyerly and unimposing, the opposition Labor Party leader has much support in key sections of an Israel that does seem ripe for change. But he has struggled to seize momentum as the alternative to Benjamin Netanyahu, a former commando who faces down foes with a baritone and scowl.

Herzog nonetheless is respected as an inventive operator with an easy-to-miss killer instinct. In a briefing with the foreign press Tuesday, he vehemently predicted victory in the March 17 election, pledging to restart peace talks with the Palestinians, freeze construction in most West Bank settlements and fix Israel's unsettled relations with the world.

"I intend to win, and I will win, and I will be the next prime minister of Israel and I will replace Benjamin Netanyahu," he said.

Herzog agreed with the incumbent that "no Israeli leader will ever accept a nuclear Iran" - which he called "the most dangerous rogue nation in the world." But he criticized as a mistake Netanyahu's planned address on the issue to Congress next week, a source of friction with the White House, which was not consulted.

After a cumulative nine years of Netanyahu as prime minister since 1996, polls suggest most Israelis would prefer him gone - but also show Netanyahu leading on personal plausibility.

Herzog will probably not be given another shot. This is the sixth national election since the last one the Labor Party won, in 1999; Herzog is the seventh party leader during that timespan.

He has taken to speaking loudly and gesticulating, and in one campaign ad he went so far as to dub his own voice with that of a booming announcer, mocking the emphasis on the question of his nasally tones.

A strong candidate would have decent odds: There is deep malaise about the state of the economy, where despite a rich-world GDP many feel hard-put to get by, and housing has soared beyond the reach of most young people.

There is not much admiration for Netanyahu's handling of Gaza, where rocket-firing Hamas militants remain in control and have survived several rounds of fighting while Israel faces UN war crimes inquiries.

And there is a widespread sense that Netanyahu's right wing is dragging the country toward nothing less than the destruction of Jewish state - that through endless Jewish settlement of the West Bank, with its millions of Palestinians, Israel will become unable to ever break free, yielding a Jewish-Arab state instead. That analysis seems to be shared by most senior people in the security establishment - as Herzog emphasized on Tuesday - as well as the academic, cultural and business elites.

A boyish 54, Herzog is cut from the cloth of these elites. His grandfather was a chief rabbi of Israel and his father was a general, a U.N. ambassador and a president. An uncle - Abba Eban - was a legendary foreign minister. He has served in Cabinets, at times in uneasy coalition with Netanyahu, as minister of tourism and as minister of welfare.

He was also a major in the army - but in a top intelligence unit known not for daring-do in battle but for spawning much of Israel's vaunted high-tech industry. In contrast, the only two Labor Party leaders to score clear-cut election victories since the early 1970s were Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak, both former military chiefs.

It makes a kind of sense: Minus the West Bank, Israel remains about 10 miles (15 kilometers) wide at the narrowest point, putting major cities in range of attack. Voters are far likelier to take this risk if the recommendation comes from a top military man.

In December, Herzog persuaded former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni to join Labor in a grouping named the "Zionist Union." It yielded tailwind and put them neck-to-neck with Netanyahu's Likud at the top of the polls.

But the momentum has been stemmed, and with an array of squabbling others running as well, the election results could be messy.

There is a united Israeli Arab party that could come in third and may support Herzog but not enter his coalition; four religious parties of different degrees of opposition to Herzog; and two centrist parties that ally with neither left nor right, want peace but consider the Palestinians to be insufficiently interested, and emphasize the economy and social issues instead.

It's possible neither Herzog nor Netanyahu will command majority backing in such a fragmented landscape, unlike in 2013, when Netanyahu's nationalist and religious backers together won 61 seats of the 120. And it's possible that in the end Herzog and Netanyahu will form a "unity government" that will do little, for neither better nor worse.

The latest survey, by Channel 2 TV on Tuesday, put the Zionist Union ahead of Likud by 24 to 22 seats, with the majority of seats going to the other smaller parties; it had a 3.8 percent margin of error.

Some expect President Reuven Rivlin to tap the head of the biggest single party to try to form a coalition, ignoring the traditional larger bloc calculations and letting the chips fall where they may.

In his briefing, Herzog reveled in his underdog status and hinted at quiet understandings with other parties.

"People didn't give me a chance when I ran for the leadership of Labor ... and I won in a landslide. Some people argued that there is no chance I will be leader of the opposition with (Israeli) Arabs and Ultra-Orthodox," he said. "Some people argued that Labor - this old derelict party - will never pick up, and I surprised time and again. I am telling you seriously I have all the options of forming a coalition."

Rivals and allies alike predict that if tapped by Rivlin, Herzog will indeed leave no stone unturned and no deal undone, driven by the burning ambition of the underestimated man. In an electoral landscape as confused as Israel's has become, that may turn out to be the number one skill to have.

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Dan Perry has covered the Middle East since the 1990s and leads AP's text coverage in the region. Follow him on Twitter at ww.twitter.com/perry-dan

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