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Isaac Herzog: Israel’s unassuming and pedigreed new president

The country’s next head of state, a scion of one of its leading political families, vows to ‘build bridges’ within Israeli society after handily winning Knesset vote for post

Isaac Herzog prays at the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City on June 1, 2021, a day before he was selected by Knesset members as Israel's 11th president. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Isaac Herzog prays at the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City on June 1, 2021, a day before he was selected by Knesset members as Israel's 11th president. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Modest, diplomatic and with a strong political pedigree, Isaac Herzog is the new incoming president of Israel, elected in a landslide Wednesday to the largely ceremonial position.

It’s a fitting post for the Tel Aviv-born politician, a scion of one of Israel’s most prestigious families, sometimes referred to as Israel’s version of the Kennedys.

He won easily over Miriam Peretz — an Israel Prize-winning educator and social activist who lost two sons in Israel’s wars and is known as “the mother of sons.”

The 60-year-old Herzog was first elected to the Knesset in 2003.

Before entering the Knesset, he served as cabinet secretary under Labor prime minister Ehud Barak, then from 2005 held portfolios including housing, tourism and welfare.

In 2015 Herzog vied to oust Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, presenting himself as an understated, even-keeled alternative to the bombastic “Bibi.”

President-elect Isaac Herzog and his wife Michal at the Knesset, June 2, 2021 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

And as chance would have it, he was elected president years later on the day that a coalition of ideological rivals united in a bid to remove the veteran prime minister from power.

“I will be everyone’s president,” he said following his victory, tears in his eyes as he thanked his wife Michal.

“I will build bridges between different parts of our society.”

Yair Lapid, the coalition architect striving to cobble an alliance that could unseat Netanyahu, congratulated his “friend” Herzog, calling him “a worthy and wonderful man who is always focused on the good of the country and the Jewish people.”

Speaking from the Knesset, Netanyahu meanwhile wished Herzog “good luck” — to which Herzog replied: “I’ll be happy to work with every government, no matter the leader.”

“Let’s not get into it now,” Netanyahu replied.

Pro-peace talks

Herzog’s Ireland-born father, Chaim Herzog, served as head of Military Intelligence then went on to become Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations and finally the nation’s sixth president, from 1983 to 1993.

His uncle Abba Eban is a famed Israeli diplomat and statesman who served as envoy to Washington and the UN before becoming Israel’s foreign minister during a period that included the 1967 Six Day War.

Herzog’s grandfather and namesake — Rabbi Yitzhak (Isaac) HaLevi Herzog — was Israel’s first Ashkenazi chief rabbi.

President-elect Isaac Herzog visits the grave of his father, former president Chaim Herzog, at Mount Herzl national cemetery in Jerusalem, June 2, 2021. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Herzog spent several years at school in New York during his father’s posting overseas before returning to Israel, serving as an officer in army intelligence and eventually studying law at Tel Aviv University.

After taking the helm of the Labor party, Herzog, who supports a two-state solution, worked to steer its focus back to peace with the Palestinians.

Barely 10 days after taking over, he met Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

Israel’s then-opposition leader Isaac Herzog (left) meets with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank city of Ramallah. December 1, 2013. (Issam Rimawi/Flash90/File)

During his 2015 campaign he vowed to relaunch the peace process, which collapsed in April 2014, even saying he was prepared to “remove” Israeli settlements if necessary.

Most recently he worked as chairman of the Jewish Agency, a semi-governmental organization whose tasks include Jewish immigration and relations with the Jewish diaspora.

Married with three children, Herzog still lives in the house where he grew up in Tel Aviv and answers to the nickname “Bougie” — reportedly given him by his Egyptian-born mother.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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