Ten months in office, Isaac Herzog is proving a markedly active president — wielding what he calls the immense soft power of his office to promote Israeli goals overseas and seek to heal rifts at home.
Herzog, 61, is scion of one of Israel’s most storied families — his grandfather Yitzhak Halevi Herzog was chief rabbi for over two decades before and after Israel achieved its independence; his father Chaim preceded him as president for a decade from 1983; his brother Michael is Israel’s ambassador to the United States. And he came into office with peerless connections and a lifetime’s understanding of Israeli politics and diplomacy.
With that background, he’s been able to further elevate the presidency from its formal ceremonial status into a key tool for advancing Israeli interests, and to do so in commendable harmony with Israel’s most diverse coalition ever. Perhaps even more remarkably, given his own political background as the former leader of the Labor party, he has managed to do so without drawing particular ire from Israel’s deeply embittered opposition.
This interview with The Times of Israel, conducted to coincide with Israel’s 74th Independence Day, goes a long way to explaining the secrets of his success. Herzog is at once firm in his principles, extraordinarily diplomatic, and credibly earnest in advancing his belief in the simple value of honest dialogue.
“The main thrust of my agenda,” says Herzog, in the key summation of his approach to the role, is “to work in order to lower the walls between groups as much as possible, and encourage dialogue, trust and at least knowledge of one another.”
With that guiding principle, Herzog has been seen jetting off to Turkey, having gradually helped prepare the ground for the potential warming of Israel’s ties with the volatile President Recep Tayyip Erdogan; widening channels of communication with the Biden administration; touring the UAE; telephoning Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to convey warm wishes for Eid al-Fitr; and hosting an Iftar dinner for some 200 Arab Israeli notables.
Given his support, as Labor leader, of a two-state solution; his declaration at a meeting with Abbas in 2015 that a peace deal was potentially possible within two years; and his criticism as opposition leader of then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu for failing to initiate Israeli proposals for progress, perhaps the most telling passages in our interview are those in which he states flatly that “we won’t get to a permanent status [agreement]” in the foreseeable future, and urges “originality and new thought” on what he plainly sees as a very long road toward resolving the Palestinian conflict.
“I’m not a firm believer in the old paradigms because I don’t see them necessarily picking up,” Herzog said. “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. 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…”
If that sounds like an uphill battle, however, Herzog’s overriding message is insistently optimistic. He believes Israel is less divided than widely perceived; he believes intra-Jewish relations are ripe and viable for warming; he sees a “historical movement of inclusion of Israel in the region”; and he is awed by what Israel has achieved as it enters its 75th year, and what it can achieve in the years ahead.
“I believe in the energy of the Israeli people and in their zestfulness,” he told us. “Now is our opportunity to develop further, and look towards the centennial… It’s just around the corner.”
The interview was conducted in English, and has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.
The Times of Israel: Mr. President, let’s talk first of all about the Temple Mount and the violence, and what seems like the rejection in the Arab world of any Jewish legitimacy there.
President Isaac Herzog: These are very sensitive days and Israel is doing its utmost to protect the right of religious practice for all, to leave all sites open, to protect all those who are praying.
As I stated during an Iftar dinner which we held to break the fast with hundreds of Muslim leaders in Israel, we are bombarded by fake news, diatribes and lies about Israel’s actions on the mount. They’re all lies. 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.
Unfortunately on the night before Seder night, at 4 o’clock in the morning, there was a pre-instigated rogue attack at the site, with firecrackers, stones thrown toward the Western Wall and other places. This compelled the police, who did not want to go into the mosque, to arrest people in order to enable tens of thousands of worshipers to enter the mosque and pray. Every day there are thousands of people who are going to pray. 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.
Are you involved in the negotiations to calm things down? We heard the prime minister of Jordan encouraging the rioters, and this is very damaging to the very delicate relationship between Israel with Jordan, which you were part of trying to rebuild.
First of all, our relations with Jordan are always important, and very important to us. There are efforts being made at all levels, including by myself. I can only express sorrow regarding the Jordanian prime minister’s position. I hope that when he knows the facts better, it will be corrected.
We are also making clear that any allegation [regarding Israel’s actions], we are open to check and study. I’ve made this clear to world and regional leaders, and I know the prime minister has done the same.
But first let’s put the record straight. The recent tension on the Mount is an outright result of pre-planned 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 place blame on Israel. And I’m sure that it won’t work. Our efforts were commended by leaders from all over the world — for example, the bold decision of the defense establishment, under the leadership of the government and the defense minister, to lift any closure [of the West Bank for most of Ramadan], and many steps to enable a pleasant Ramadan for so many Muslims in the Palestinian autonomy, and the territories, and in Gaza.
Mr. President, you’ve said you intend to speak with the Palestinian Authority president soon. [Herzog indeed telephoned PA President Mahmoud Abbas on Sunday evening]. Do you see him as a force for calm, even though the PA has been so involved in anti-Israel incitement, including in the run-up to these confrontations?
I always believe in dialogue. I definitely believe in dialogue with the Palestinian leaders. I said that I hope to be able to call President Abbas and congratulate him for Eid-al-Fitr. However, I also said that there are a lot of setbacks in the situation, including the very inaccurate and baseless rhetoric of the Palestinian leadership against Israel, as well as steps taken by the Palestinian leadership against Israel.
I do believe that we should find ways and means to have a dialogue — not on the political level, but more on the people-to-people level. I think that there’s kind of a mental block between the two nations which should be dealt with in a different way.
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 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.
Can we turn to Ukraine? Are you comfortable that Israel is on the right side of history? Should we be standing more clearly with Ukraine? Have you been troubled or pleased by the way we’ve dealt with refugees wanting to come to Israel?
Israel is doing its best in assisting the Ukrainian people. The tragedy in Ukraine is enormous. It breaks my heart, and I said it from day one.
I’ve offered any help we can provide for humanitarian needs. There are thousands of Israelis who are involved on the ground in helping the Ukrainian people. I was in close contact on a weekly basis with our field hospital — a full, big hospital on the ground. One of a kind. No other nation built such a hospital on the ground.
Israel is doing its best in assisting the Ukrainian people. The tragedy in Ukraine is enormous. It breaks my heart, and I said it from day one
[My wife] Michal and I hosted a Ukrainian Jewish family who fled from Ukraine for Seder and her father stayed in Ukraine.
We are extremely saddened by [what is happening]. Israel has taken a clear position in the international arena.
However, one needs always to remember that we also have clear strategic security interests. We need to fight the Iranians in this region — and this is something accepted by the international community — to push them out of Syria. So we have our considerations. I think Israel is operating correctly.
Also the efforts of Prime Minister Bennett in trying to de-escalate the situation, a few weeks ago, were correct in my mind. [I support] any ways and means to lower the tension and reach a ceasefire.
Regarding intra-Jewish friction at the Western Wall, and arrangements for prayer for all streams of Judaism, you set up a committee back in December in order to try to negotiate a solution. Is it going anywhere?
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
I’m doing my utmost so that all people of Israel get to know each other and respect each other, and all Jewish people get to know each other and respect each other. There are always elements who are much more conservative in their approach to the other, more negative in their approach to the other, and I believe there must be a dialogue.
I’m also a true believer in arrangements at the Western Wall. I hope there will be some solutions on the ground, especially the original solution [from 2000] of the alternative site in Robinson’s Arch [for non-Orthodox prayer]. I pushed for it. And I hope that we will be able to resume some of the efforts that were taken by my office. But it’s not easy on all fronts, I must say.
It’s necessary for the Jewish people to be united. 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.
I have worked to prevent strife and tension at the Western Wall in the last few months, and to enable groups to pray at the Western Wall. What we’re trying to do is enable people to pray without conflict.
You said your stomach turned over [regarding comments by Joint List party leader Ayman Odeh calling on Israeli Arabs not to serve in the security forces].
Yes, absolutely, because I have known Ayman Odeh well for many years as someone who believes in the inclusion of the Arab citizens of Israel in all walks of life. After my comments, I actually got a message that he was misinterpreted from Arabic to Hebrew. So I don’t intend to argue with Ayman Odeh. I will just say that I believe in the inclusion of all citizens of Israel in all walks of life.
I especially want to see more and more Haredim and more and more Arabs in all fields of life. You see many more Arabs now in all economic spheres and more and more government echelons. I really look forward to swearing in the new Muslim judge in the Supreme Court, which will be history as well, and many more.
During Ramadan, Michal and I went to visit the Muslim military unit, the Bedouin Reconnaissance Battalion — we found them in the field, at the border, working tremendously impressively; Israelis who believe in their Israeli identity whilst they are Muslims and members of other faiths. That’s the true nature of the evolution of Israeli society.
And at the other end of the political spectrum, we had a party leader, Bezalel Smotrich, saying members of the coalition should be barred from synagogues on Passover.
And of course, I criticized this — in the same way I commented on the British Jewish community, after the Board of Deputies published a ban on Bezalel Smotrich. I said that was a mistake, because I believe that when an Israeli leader is visiting a Jewish community, he should be heard and also hear. It’s much more effective to have a dialogue rather than banning.
In the same way that I demand and we demand that all Israeli leaders meet all [Diaspora] Jewish leaders from all ways of life and streams in Israel, I expect Jewish leaders abroad and active members of the community to listen to voices from Israel and also be heard by then. They can criticize them in the meeting and actually confront them, but they should do it by way of a meeting. I expect everybody to abolish all ideas of any bans. Bans never work. It’s counterproductive.
Following your recent visit to Turkey, are we expecting the Turkish foreign minister to visit Israel anytime soon?
I assume there will be meetings following Ramadan. When and where and how will be determined between the foreign ministers themselves.
And you’re happy with the results of your visit?
Very happy. The visit left a big impact on both peoples. I also called President Erdogan to congratulate him for Ramadan, and he condemned vehemently the terror attacks on Israel.
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
The relationship will be judged according to deeds, actions on the ground. As I pointed out during the visit, our trade with Turkey is growing, and also there’s quite an influx of tourist activity this holiday. And of course, that has to go side by side with our unique relationship with Greece and Cyprus, and Foreign Minister Lapid’s visit and meetings with the leaders of those countries was very positive.
And are we expecting a next country [to normalize relations with Israel]? Indonesia, perhaps, because of some interfaith activity that is taking place between the Indonesian government and some Jewish communities — is that on the table?
I’m unaware of that. But I think, all in all, 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. I give credit to those who led to this agreement.
It’s also a movement that comes out of the [common] interests which are clear — especially [facing] 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.
How do you see the relationship with the American government now? You mentioned Iran. The US government seems to want to rejoin the Iranian deal, which most Israeli leaders seem to find very troubling.
Michal and I were very happy to host Ambassador Tom Nides at our Seder night, and I had a very thoughtful and pleasant conversation with Vice President Kamala Harris, who called me on the eve of Pesach to condemn the terrorist attacks, as well as to wish a happy Passover, and to convey both condemnations of terrorism and congratulations on the festival from President Biden. And I wished [a happy Passover to her] because it was the first Seder night held in the vice president’s home in American history.
I have met both National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, for very open and frank discussions.
We have no better friend than the United States of America — friend and ally.
The JCPOA is, of course, an issue which is discussed openly, frankly, between Israel and the P5+1 nations, but mostly with the United States. We oppose categorically the removal of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps from the listing of designated terror groups. That’s one of the main issues that’s on the agenda. Let’s wait and see how it all evolves. But we are very clear on our positions on the Iranian nuclear deal, because we are worried by its impact on the region and its possible adverse impact on peace in the region and fighting terror.
Your predecessor president Rivlin had to give the mandate for forming a government four or five times during his term. We are looking at more potential turmoil here, and the current government not holding together. You could be facing the same problem of granting the mandate to form a government to someone who is not merely indicted, but on trial. How do you see this political crisis from now on, in your role?
Israel requires political stability, always. It’s important for our nation and our ability to operate short-term and long-term… That’s the national consensus
I will never answer hypothetical questions and I don’t intend to jump into the political swamp. I think there’s one thing that’s agreed by all: Israel always needs political stability. It doesn’t matter from which side of the political spectrum. That’s not for me to decide. But Israel requires political stability, always. It’s important for our nation and our ability to operate short-term and long-term… That’s the national consensus.
You have put a lot of time and effort into bringing different groups together and talking to different groups. You are welcome [among Jewish residents] in Hebron; you’re welcome in [the Arab city of] Kafr Qasim. You are welcome in all walks of Israeli society. But the fact that the president is welcomed by all of those groups doesn’t bring them together.
This is the main thrust of my agenda: to work in order to lower the walls between groups as much as possible, and encourage dialogue, trust and at least knowledge of one another.
There are many positive processes that, of course, usually don’t get the attention of media and others. For example, as I mentioned, we had an Iftar dinner with hundreds of people from all walks of life, hundreds of Muslim leaders. And I started it with [the Jewish hymn] “Hinei Mah Tov..” [– how good it is for people to sit together in unity]. It was an amazing event because there is a need and desire for dialogue.
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. 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, but it’s much more unified because there’s a major sense of purpose. There’s a major sense of mission.
I went with Michal to give mishloah manot for Purim to children who are in dialysis in the kidney department for children in Shaare Zedek Hospital. We walk in and we look at the room, and there are Orthodox kids and secular kids and Arab kids and Druze kids and Palestinian kids and even kids from Gaza, believe it or not.
And I’m looking around, and I said to the doctor, all people are born equal under the Lord Almighty. And he said, of course, Mr. President. And I said to myself, this is the real story. And we should simply disseminate it.
We have a great nation, a great source story to tell, an incredibly successful nation, outstanding people, huge inner power, moral power, light. I believe in our people, and I’m an optimist.
After almost a year as president, how do you feel in the position?
I’m very happy. I feel a sense of doing good and trying to impact with the soft power that was granted to me — soft power, which is quite strong and quite immense. The institution of the presidency is very strong in our nation’s psyche. I see it as a great mission. Michal and I are engaged with a huge overload of missions and tasks, but we’re also laying down an agenda in which everybody can find a place — such as the climate challenge, or the future in space, or the ability to promote science and culture and literature and inclusivity.
The institution of the presidency is very strong in our nation’s psyche. I see it as a great mission
We encourage the fact that while we are the nation-state of the Jewish people and everybody should be proud of their own identity, we have one common table which we all should sit around — and that’s our nation as nation-state of the Jewish people, which is also a multicultural society.
Can we finish by going back to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? It is potentially such a threat to Israel if we can’t find a way to safely separate from the Palestinians. And I know what you’ve said about what is achievable at the moment, but in the medium and long term future, how do we go about solving it?
Well, I think it 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 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
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. 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…
I look at it in proportionality: Next year we will mark 50 years since the Yom Kippur War. In that war, we were surrounded by nations that were all our enemies. Fifty years later, our closest allies are some of our neighbors. This is the reality. This is how we should judge — from a long-term viewpoint. And 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.
I don’t see any possibility right now of finding any other alternative.
And what would you like to wish for our state, on Independence Day, for the coming year?
Israel will be entering its 75th year. It’s an amazing achievement, by a nation which started literally from scratch and is a world leader today in so many fields, with such bright people.
I believe in the energy of the Israeli people and in their zestfulness. People come to Israel now in so many groups and visits, and they tell me there’s something in the spirit here that makes them look at things so positively, and I do believe in it.
Yes, we have challenges. We have threats. I never avoid them, but we’ve always had threats, in each generation.
But now is our opportunity to develop further, and look towards the centennial. This should be our objective. I wish the people of Israel to look up high, toward the centennial — it’s just around the corner — and see how to improve the situation as much as possible.
And meanwhile, I wish the people of Israel many happy returns on our Independence Day. For one day we should ignore the quarrels and the arguments, look around, and be proud of what we’ve achieved.