A young Orthodox Israeli man attaches an election sticker supporting Israeli Economy Minister Naftali Bennett (not pictured) on a campaign poster of Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog (left) and his running mate, former justice minister Tzipi Livni, in Jerusalem, this month. Israel is to hold early elections March 17. (Abir Sultan/EPA)

TEL AVIV — The Washington Post sat down recently for a quick bite with the head of the Israeli opposition, Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog. According to the most recent polls, Herzog and his running mate, former justice minister and peace negotiator Tzipi Livni, are in a tight race against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, ahead of elections set for March 17. Herzog ordered mineral water and a smoked salmon sandwich. He ate a salad without dressing and used his fingers. He spoke in fluent but lightly accented English. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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Q: The White House seems to be showing some, shall we say, flexibility in reaching a deal with Iran, while Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appears to be against "a deal at any cost,"’ a deal that allows Iran to preserve its centrifuges to enrich uranium, for example. Where do you stand?

A: I believe that it is preferable to reach an international agreement with Iran, provided that the agreement is iron-clad and clearly prevents Iran from becoming nuclear.

It is more important to determine what is a bad deal. President Obama has said if it’s a bad deal, then he prefers no deal. But we need to determine with our allies, the Americans, what exactly is a bad deal.

There is no major difference between us and Netanyahu in identifying the Iranian threat as a major threat to the Middle East and to world peace. And I agree that a nuclear Iran is extremely dangerous. I believe that it must be prevented, by all means.

No Israeli leader will accept a nuclear Iran.

Q: Is Netanyahu making a mistake going to speak before a joint session of the U.S. Congress on Iran? Is it a calculation that will ultimately hurt or help Israel’s position?

A: The relationship between Israel and United States is something unique. It is something special, and therefore it will outlast any crisis or any rift.

Unfortunately, I think the recent steps are a mistake. For us, the United States is a strategic alliance, not political. We should be as careful as possible not to walk the floor between one side and the other [Democrats and Republicans].

Q: Do you think the two-state solution with the Palestinians is dead? It looks dead.

A: I don’t necessarily accept the notion that it’s dead.

I think we are in one of the more difficult periods in the relationship between us and the Palestinians. Mainly because following the collapse of the talks, which were led by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry last spring, we have skidded into a deadlock, a kind of a dead end between the parties whereby the Palestinians opted for a unilateral option.

By opting towards a U.N. Security Council resolution and challenging Israel in the International Criminal Court in The Hague, the Palestinians have basically shifted the process from a bilateral process to a unilateral process. That is unacceptable to me. We do not accept unilateralism; we believe in going into a process.

The way to ignite the process, to my mind, is by using a regional platform, predominantly our neighbors Egypt and Jordan, who are key players, to see whether through them and with them we can ignite a process.

[Related: Half a year after devastating war, life in Gaza seems worse than ever]

Q: On the issue of settlements, would you change the current approach, of these frequent announcements — a hundred units approved here, a hundred there — which often serve to antagonize both the Palestinians and the U.S. administration? What do you think about a freeze, if there are peace talks? 

A: Israel should act responsibly but always keep the vision that in any future agreement, settlement blocs will stay under Israeli sovereignty.

As part of reigniting the peace process, I am speaking about confidence-building measures, but they should be mutual. And we will have to find the right way to build or start the process by agreeing on such measures and then see whether we can trust each other.

Q: Do you think the summer war in Gaza went on for too long?

A: Our citizens were attacked day in, day out, and I found myself back in a bomb shelter like when I was a child. It triggered something deep in me, and I believe that in the battle against terror there is no compromise at all.

It is clear that the biggest failure was that there was no international resolution or exit from this. There were no moves to demilitarize Gaza or rebuild Gaza or create a mini-Marshall plan. There was not even a resolution to move towards that process.

Q: Do you believe, as pundits in Israel are saying, that the upcoming election boils down to a referendum on Netanyahu?

A: It is a referendum on whether the people of Israel want another four years with Netanyahu, but it’s also about the priorities of the nation. Where do we want to put our resources? It is about the ability to combine the economic, social and national agenda with the ability to maneuver in the international arena.

We are having a deep debate with Netanyahu and his Likud party because it's either we win or he stays on.

I believe that I have created a unique partnership with Tzipi Livni allowing me to break the glass ceiling that stopped all the alternatives previously and has enabled me to become the main challenger of Bibi.

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