Isaac Herzog, the chairman of the Jewish Agency and former head of the Labor party, was elected Wednesday as Israel’s eleventh president.
Herzog defeated Miriam Peretz, a social activist who overcame the loss of two of her sons in battle to become an Israel Prize-winning educator, with 87 votes, the most a presidential candidate has ever won, to her 26.
In the secret election, in which all 120 MKs were eligible to cast votes, three abstained, three votes were disqualified and one lawmaker, Ra’am chair Mansour Abbas, did not vote.
Herzog, who is the son of Israel’s sixth president, Chaim Herzog, and the grandson of Israel’s first chief rabbi, will succeed Reuven Rivlin when the latter’s term ends on July 9.
In his first speech after being elected, Herzog said he intended “to build bridges” within Israeli society and with the Jewish Diaspora, to encourage entrepreneurship, “fight antisemitism and hatred of Israel,” and “safeguard the foundations of our democracy.”
“I accept upon myself the heavy responsibility you have placed upon me. I accept the privilege of serving the entire Israeli public,” he said.
He also hailed Peretz as “an Israeli hero,” and “an inspiration” to all Israelis.
Congratulated by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Herzog said to him: “I hope I will be able to work with every government and every prime minister.”
Replied a smiling Netanyahu, to laughter from Herzog, “Let’s not get into that now.”
Peretz called Herzog a beloved and worthy president, and stressed that her prayers and those of the nation were all devoted to his success in the role. “His success is our success.”
As for herself, Peretz said, “I will continue to meet with young Israelis, and do everything to bring people together, to heal and sometimes to be a mother, because we all need a hug, we all need someone to give us hope, to show us compassion, love, a different discourse.”
In a congratulatory message to Herzog, Rivlin noted: “The title of ‘first citizen’ and the task of guarding the character of the State of Israel, particularly at this point in time, are heavy responsibilities. I have no doubt that you will bear them superbly. I am proud to pass on the baton to you in a month’s time. Long live the State of Israel! Long live the President of the State of Israel!”
Rivlin also sent a message to Peretz: “Dear Miriam, you have a piece of my heart, of all of our hearts. I want to thank you for setting out on this path. For your sacrifice. For the special way you chose in this campaign. For the language you taught us – the language of the heart.”
Immediately after the vote, Netanyahu congratulated Herzog on his election, saying, “I wish him luck in the name of all Israeli citizens.”
The prime minister added, “I thank Miriam Peretz for her honorable candidacy and am certain she will continue to contribute to Israeli society, as she has done her entire life.”
Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid, the head of the opposition, said Herzog was “a worthy and wonderful man who is always focused on the good of the country and the Jewish people. Good luck, Mr. President!”
Israel’s president is largely ceremonial but plays a key role in deciding who gets the mandate to form a government following elections. The president also has the power to pardon people and grant clemency, something that could become a key issue should Netanyahu be convicted in his ongoing corruption trial.
In the run-up to the vote, Herzog refused to say whether he would consider pardoning Netanyahu, who had not endorsed either candidate.
A well-heeled attorney by profession at one of the country’s top firms (which was founded by his father), Herzog’s family story is as close as one comes to Israeli royalty. He is the grandson of Israel’s first Ashkenazi chief rabbi, Isaac Herzog, for whom he is named, and the son of former IDF major general and then president Chaim Herzog. His brother Michael is a retired IDF brigadier general. His aunt Suzy was the wife of former foreign minister Abba Eban.
In his 15 years in the Knesset, he became known as a soft-spoken and mild-mannered manager. He ran respectful campaigns and declined to take part in the kind of angry political feuding that have come to define the country’s fractious politics.
Peretz became a household name under the most tragic of circumstances after her eldest son Uriel was killed fighting in Lebanon in 1998 and his younger brother Eliraz was killed in an operation near Gaza in 2010. But the Casablanca native went on to become a motivational speaker on issues surrounding Zionism and coping with loss. In 2018, she won the Israel Prize for lifetime achievement, the country’s highest cultural honor.
In 2019, several political parties courted Peretz to join them ahead of the first of four elections held in the past two years. The interested slates included New Right, Kulanu, and Yesh Atid — parties from the right, center-right and center. Peretz turned down the offers, explaining that she wanted to continue her public work outside the framework of politics, where she believed she’d have greater influence.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.