Ten months after he took office as Israel’s 11th president, Isaac Herzog says he is using the “immense soft power” of the presidency to encourage dialogue among Israel’s various groups, between Israel and potential regional allies, between Israel and the Palestinian people, and between Israel and Diaspora Jewry, with the common strategic goal of lowering barriers and encouraging mutual understanding.
In an interview with The Times of Israel marking Israel’s 74th Independence Day on Thursday, the president said encouraging these dialogues is “the main thrust of my agenda.”
At the same time, the president took bitter aim at what he called the premeditated efforts of those seeking to stir up trouble between Israel and the Arab and Muslim world, notably by pumping out “fake news” about Israeli policies and actions at the Temple Mount. “The recent tension on the Mount is an outright result of preplanned efforts to light up and flare up this situation in order to impact the enormous progress that is enjoyed by Arab countries and Israel together in their relations in the region, and in order to put Israel as the one who’s under blame. And I’m sure that it won’t work,” he said.
Regarding his efforts at bolstering intra-Israel dialogue and understanding, Herzog said, “There is a big desire for dialogue — including in the so-called mixed cities [of Jews and Arabs]. I’m dealing with this quietly, usually in close quarters — an open, frank dialogue with all conflicting parties.” In these conversations, he said, “I find a huge desire to live together in peace and harmony. I believe our nation is much more unified [than people think]. It’s not that there’s no divisiveness,” he acknowledged, “but there’s a major sense of [shared] purpose.”
As regards regional relations, Herzog said Israel should “seize the moment [and] use this era” to forge and bolster ties. “The historic movement is for much more dialogue than in the past between Islamic nations and Israel, especially Sunni nations, of course. This is the symbolism of this era, and we should seize the moment, use this era, on the platform of the Abraham accords, which made history.”
Opportunities for warming ties, he specified, also stem from clear common interests — especially in light of “the efforts of Iran to reach nuclear weapons, the need to develop a joint defense strategy in the region, and of course, the future. I foresee a great future for this region as a supplier of energy to Europe, Asia and Africa; especially when we’re dealing with climate, the whole notion of solar energy. There are many ideas. If we only believe, we can reach those moments.”
Where the Palestinians are concerned, Herzog said a political agreement is not feasible given current realities, but people-to-people dialogue is viable and necessary.
He castigated the “very inaccurate and baseless rhetoric of the Palestinian leadership against Israel” — including as regards the Temple Mount — and continued: “We won’t get to a permanent status [agreement]. The situation does not enable a true ability of a process — when you have a Palestinian nation split between two different factions, when you have terror looming, when you have a dysfunctional political system and so forth. But you could find ways and means to advance the ability of people-to-people dialogue. And that’s always welcome in my mind. Because in the end, they are our neighbors, and the same way I feel about the historical movement of inclusion of Israel in the region, I believe [this] should also include in some form or manner, discourse with Palestinians.”
For now, he said, “there’s kind of a mental block between the two nations which should be dealt with in a different way.”
Ultimately, resolving the Palestinian issue “requires originality and new thought. It requires a lucid view of the facts on the ground and of course, on the psychological side of things between the nations. How do we get the young generation to have a dialogue? After all, you see some very bright people and originality in the young generation, and perhaps some of the hope will come from there.
“I’m not a firm believer in the old paradigms because I don’t see them necessarily picking up. And I’m trying to explain to people who are repeating the old paradigms that they need to review them, and see where things went wrong and why,” he added. “At the end of it, I utterly believe that Israel’s cause is just and unequivocally correct. And [progress will be possible] when people will understand that and accept us in the region…
The way forward, he suggested, is to “see how we can move step by step — in small steps rather than big steps — in advancing the situation for the benefit of both people. We are neighbors and because we are neighbors, we should find ways to have dialogue that make sense.”
With regard to the recent violence and high tensions surrounding the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif — the holiest place in Judaism as the site of the biblical Temples, and the site of Islam’s third-holiest shrine, Al-Aqsa Mosque — Herzog said it was crucial to “put the record straight.”
Herzog elaborated: “Unfortunately we are bombarded by fake news, diatribes and lies about Israel’s actions on the mount,” he said. “Take for example the issue of sacrificing a young goat. They claimed that we were going to sacrifice a young goat. In fact, a bunch of extremists wanted to go on the Mount, and the Israeli police arrested them and stopped them, way before they entered the site.
“But there were waves and waves of lies — fake news published all around the Muslim world in order to instigate hate and to draw the parties into another conflict.”
“Before the complaints and the blame game, one needs to know the facts. I hope that things will calm down because we are doing our best to calm things down.”
Turning to Israel-Diaspora relations, Herzog said he was “doing my utmost” to help bolster understanding and respect within the global Jewish community, and said Jewish unity was all the more necessary because “unfortunately, I predict growth in antisemitism in the world due to the geostrategic situation, not only post-COVID, but because of some of the ripple effects of the conflict in Europe.”
He also said he was working to advance solutions for Jewish prayer at the Western Wall, “especially the original solution [from 2000] of the alternative site [for non-Orthodox prayer] in Robinson’s Arch.”
The full interview with President Herzog will be published to coincide with Independence Day.