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Isaac Herzog, front, says he was ‘deeply shocked’ by the recent firebombing of a Palestinian home.

JACK GUEZ/AFP / Getty Images

Israel is at a hazardous crossroads, says Isaac Herzog, leader of the Jewish state's official opposition. And it is up to the "rank and file of Israeli society" to step forward and cast out what he calls a "cocktail of extremism" that threatens to drag the state down.

Just two days after the killings of a Palestinian toddler and a teenage Israeli girl, both, apparently, by Jewish extremists, Mr. Herzog sat down with The Globe and Mail for an interview at his modest fourth-floor party offices in Tel Aviv.

"Our nation is in the midst of a huge conflict within our society," he says right off the top. "Who will prevail? Will we be able to sustain the liberal values of a democratic society in our homeland, or will we skid slowly to-ward the anarchy of extreme groups?"

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Mr. Herzog carries the weight of a great family name on his slim shoulders, and the hopes of many in this realm that he will lead them to a promised land of peace during yet another hand-wringing period of hate.

Mr. Herzog, 54, is forever compared to his scholarly grandfather, Yitzhak Herzog, for whom he was named, the first chief Ashkenazi rabbi of Israel; to his father, Chaim, a military general and two-term Israeli president; to his uncle Yaacov, political adviser to Israel's first prime ministers; and to his maternal uncle, the erudite Abba Eban, long-time diplomat and Israeli foreign minister. They are tough acts to follow.

In a political arena that takes no prisoners, this intelligent, soft-spoken and principled man seems out of place, no match for the guile and fear-mongering of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who clings to power by a single parliamentary seat.

Mr. Herzog, like most Israelis, was "deeply shocked" by the firebombing of a Palestinian village home while a young family was asleep inside. The attack killed an 18-month-old boy and critically wounded his parents and four-year-old brother. But no one should have been surprised that it happened, he said.

"We have a streak of sickness in some parts of our society," Mr. Herzog acknowledged. "We look at Charleston – the church in South Carolina [where a gunman killed nine members of the congregation] – and we say, 'It won't happen here,' but it does."

Yet, while some public figures, such as former president Shimon Peres, stood before crowds this weekend and linked Mr. Netanyahu to these recent events because of his incitement against Arabs on Election Day in March, Mr. Herzog throws the Prime Minister a political lifeline.

"I don't think you can say there's a direct connection between Netanyahu and what has happened," he said.

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"Yes, what the Prime Minister said on Election Day was extremely severe and unacceptable – shaming another group in our society [Arabs]. But the undermining of our sovereignty by zealots is something with which we have always had to contend," he pointed out.

In the 1950s, a group known as the Covenant of the Zealots torched cars that were driven on the Sabbath and firebombed non-kosher butchers and restaurants. The group's aim was to impose Jewish law and make Israel a Halakhic state – much as many of today's Jewish extremists seek.

In the 1990s, it was the killing of 29 Muslims at prayer in Hebron, and the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. And in the 1980s, it was the Jewish Underground that attempted to assassinate a number of West Bank Palestinian mayors and killed three students at an Islamic College.

A lengthy investigation led to several arrests and three members of the group were sentenced to life imprisonment. After less than seven years in prison, however, their sentences were commuted by then-president Chaim Herzog, father of Isaac Herzog.

"I do feel that there's a whole system that gave the settler leadership a sense of feeling supreme … a feeling they can do whatever they want," Mr. Herzog acknowledged.

"When you look at those who burned a church up North … and the ones who burned the multilingual school in Jerusalem, you realize these are organizations that breed hate and we have to break their infrastructure with no further delay," he insists.

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In many cases, the terror attacks are carried out by small independent groups with little contact with one another. Most of the members, often referred to as "hilltop youth," are between the ages of 17 and 23.

"As Minister of Welfare," Mr. Herzog revealed, "I made a point of talking to the hilltop youth. I went to see them on a farm near Nablus and I asked them: 'What's your story?'

"They were mostly kids who got beaten up in Amona," he said, referring to a 2006 forcible evacuation of an illegal settlement during which hundreds of settler youths fought pitched battles with the security forces.

"For them it was a huge trauma, very emotional, and they wanted revenge," Mr. Herzog said with sympathy.

"Some of them are just lost youngsters," he said. "They could have skidded to drug addiction; they could have skidded into crime, drug trafficking. Instead they chose to try to undermine the powers of the state."

The solution, Mr. Herzog argues, is to finally resolve what part of the occupied West Bank will be in a Palestinian state and what will be in Israel. This means returning to negotiations with the Palestinians.

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Whereas Mr. Netanyahu has dismissed Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas as a partner for peace, Mr. Herzog continues to champion him.

"I think Abbas is a moderate leader who faces a lot of challenges from within and from without. And he is committed to the idea of a two-state solution and knows it takes bold steps [to achieve it].

"We have to work with Abbas and do whatever we can to help him," he said.

"Had I won the election, the first thing I would do is go to Ramallah to speak to him and to the Palestinian people and give them hope."

Mr. Herzog says he would freeze all construction in settlements, except for those communities inside the four or five blocs that sit nearest Israel and, by tacit agreement, would fall inside the redrawn border of Israel. The Palestinians would receive other land from Israel in turn.

In exchange for the freeze on construction, Mr. Herzog said he would expect Mr. Abbas to freeze all his unilateral efforts toward international recognition and the prosecution of Israelis and the Israeli military for alleged war crimes.

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Recognizing that the rehabilitation of war-torn and impoverished Gaza is essential to relieving the tensions between Palestinians and Israelis, Mr. Herzog proposed a long-term ceasefire with Hamas thereby "opening up Gaza, linking it to the West Bank as part of a whole political change that's required with the Palestinians."

To that end, he said he could imagine talking to Hamas but only "if they adhere to certain prerequisites.

"As long as Hamas is willing to move on and accept the fact that Israel is here [to stay]," he said. "But let's start with the PA [the Palestinian Authority of Mr. Abbas].

"There is a unique opportunity right now in the region, on all issues," said Mr. Herzog. It flows from Hamas's needs for peace in Gaza, Mr. Abbas's last crack at a peace agreement, the concern of moderate Arab states over Iran's build up and, now, the concerns of Israelis over new waves of terrorism. Because of this, all parties are ripe for co-operation.

Though he doubts that Mr. Netanyahu is the man to lead Israel down this path, Mr. Herzog said "to be honest, there are issues on which I can see eye-to-eye with the Prime Minister. Not always do I have to automatically attack him."

On Iran, for example, while Mr. Herzog thinks Mr. Netanyahu was wrong to alienate the U.S. administration, Israel's most important ally, he shares many of the Prime Minister's concerns about the deal Washington and other major powers negotiated with Iran.

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"I'm fearful of Iran," he allowed. "I'm fearful of unleashing this hungry tiger from the cage."

"When I see [Iranian] President [Hassan] Rouhani appear on a split screen with [U.S.] President [Barack] Obama and [the Iranians] refers to us as 'the Zionist entity' as if we don't exist …" says Mr. Herzog. "Come on. We exist. Get over it. And if you cannot, then you're my enemy.

"So why should I immediately jump and clap and say thank you for getting us this deal?" he asked. Just to oppose Mr. Netanyahu? "No," he said, "we need to see what are the threats [to Israel's security] from this?

"I have no intention of challenging the [U.S.] administration, nor do I have any intention of intervening in American politics or telling members of Congress how to vote," Mr. Herzog made clear.

"I'm just saying this is a moment when we [maintain good relations] … and carve out a plan of deterrence with Iran.

"We have to adjust to the new reality to see how we make sure Israel's security is fully dealt with."

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