The statesman in the room: How Isaac Herzog became Israel’s secret diplomatic weapon

Working with a relatively green government, the veteran politician is using his experience and personal ties to turn a largely ceremonial role into an important stabilizing force

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy (left) and President Isaac Herzog attend a welcome ceremony ahead of their meeting in Kyiv, Ukraine, on Tuesday, October 5, 2021. (AP/Efrem Lukatsky)
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy (left) and President Isaac Herzog attend a welcome ceremony ahead of their meeting in Kyiv, Ukraine, on Tuesday, October 5, 2021. (AP/Efrem Lukatsky)

Meretz MK Mossi Raz has not been shy about expressing his dissatisfaction with President Isaac Herzog over the president’s decision to light a Hanukkah menorah at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron.

Last week, as Herzog visited the divided shrine in the divided West Bank city, Raz and a handful of left-wing activists took up a position at a nearby intersection. The protesters held up signs decrying Israeli “apartheid” and promised to “banish the darkness” as they raged against the decision of a former head of the dovish Labor party to plant his flag in a city at the heart of Israeli-Palestinian tensions.

A few days before the lighting, Raz and Herzog happened to run into each other in the central city of Modiin. Both were visiting the mourning Kay family, which was sitting shiva following the terrorist murder of Eliyahu David Kay in Jerusalem on November 21.

Outside the Kay home, the two shook hands warmly.

“I get why you have decided to light the candle in Hebron,” Raz told Herzog. “You’re the president for everyone. It’s your job. My job is to protest against you.”

This wasn’t a new situation for Herzog. As a savvy political actor, he understood the left’s inevitable criticism of his visit to Hebron was part of a familiar dance choreographed across the Israeli political stage. He was willing to absorb the brickbats in service of a larger goal: keeping an unstable Israel on an even keel.

President Isaac Herzog lights a Hanukkah candle in Hebron on November 28, 2021. (Courtesy/Meir Elifor)

Six months into his presidency, the veteran politician — who has been a minister, an opposition leader as head of the Labor party, and a cabinet secretary under Ehud Barak — is showing himself to be adept at navigating the current political map’s bizarre twists and hairpin turns, while acting as a beacon for those looking to engage with the Israeli political arena.

The current government led by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is a Frankenstein’s monster of political interests and alliances from across the spectrum with a majority so narrow that it can be blown up by a single recalcitrant Knesset member. Should it last another year and a half, another leader, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, will step in and take Bennett’s place.

Amid all the turbulence swirling around Israel’s leadership of late, Herzog is already showing that he can be a stabilizing force during his seven year-term. He may look boyish (even at 61), but in reality, he is seen as the adult in the room, both at home and abroad.

President Isaac Herzog (left), Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (center) and Defense Minister Benny Gantz attend a memorial ceremony for the fallen Israeli soldiers of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, at the National Hall of Remembrance, Mount Herzl, Jerusalem, September 19, 2021. (Ohad Zwigenberg/POOL)

Foreign leaders have taken note, speaking with Herzog on matters that would normally be reserved for the prime minister or foreign minister, thus turning the presidency from a little-regarded figurehead into a significant diplomatic force.

Bennett, who is one of Israel’s youngest prime ministers at 49, has shown maturity and self-confidence in giving Herzog the space he needs to maneuver diplomatically. Unlike former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Bennett does not seek to dim the president’s glow when he shines on the world stage.

Bennett and Lapid, who are not exactly political neophytes, still cannot match the influence and experience Herzog brings to the table on complicated affairs stretching outside Israel’s borders. The president has spent the last 22 years as a politician and public servant, most recently as head of the Jewish Agency, and has a long history of forging personal connections with important figures around the world, including Jewish community leaders he has doggedly kept in contact with.

President Isaac Herzog (L) meets with his German counterpart in the Ukrainian capital Kyiv on October 6, 2021, ahead of the memorial ceremony to mark the Babi Yar massacre. (Haim Zach/GPO)

At home, he is known for having warm relationships with Knesset members from every political party.

“Herzog understands that in his role, he needs the cooperation of everybody. As I see it, Bennett and Lapid work in sync [with Herzog] and they do it well,” said Efrat Duvdevani, who headed the President’s Residence during the tenure of Shimon Peres and today runs the Peres Center for Peace. “Herzog has taken upon himself several subjects and is getting into areas where he can add significant value. He’s doing it not just domestically, but also on the diplomatic front.”

All the president’s Rolodex

Three events have crystalized Herzog’s arrival as a significant political and diplomatic player.

The first was his work to defuse major tensions around a planned women’s prayer gathering at the Western Wall in early November. While Netanyahu, now opposition leader, amplified calls by ultra-Orthodox political leaders for protesters to gather at the holy site to heckle Women of the Wall and other progressive groups, Herzog worked the phones and got Gilad Kariv, a Reform rabbi and Labor MK, to cancel his plans to attend the service in support of the women’s groups.

Ultra-Orthodox MKs on the other side of the issue followed suit, and a major potential clash was avoided, with protests remaining low-key.

To get Kariv to cancel, Herzog promised him and leaders of the Reform and Conservative streams of Judaism that he would convene a forum under the auspices of the President’s Residence to come up with an agreed-upon solution for the issue of an official pluralistic prayer space at the Western Wall.

Members of the Women of the Wall movement hold Rosh Hodesh prayers at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, November 5, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

By taking on the issue, Herzog was inserting himself into one of the most important debates to have riven Israel and Diaspora Jewry in recent years, which holds significance far outside the confines of domestic Israeli politics.

Weeks later, Herzog played a major role in negotiations with Turkey over an Israeli couple detained for allegedly spying, after one of them took a picture of one of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s palaces.

Herzog had spoken to Erdogan by phone in July, but given the delicate diplomatic situation around the arrest, he feared going directly back to the Turkish president could end up complicating matters. So instead he finessed lower-ranking Turkish officials and convinced them that the Oknins belonged back home in Modiin. The Turkish officials conveyed to Herzog from upstairs that Erdogan expected calls from him and from Bennett once the affair was wrapped up.

‘He didn’t make a big to-do out of it. He just did his job. It’s not something we’re used to’

A statement from Bennett and Lapid announcing the release of the two Israelis on November 17 credited Herzog for his efforts to spring them from prison. A day later both Bennett’s and Herzog’s offices announced that they had each spoken to Erdogan.

Despite his role in the return of the couple, Herzog kept a relatively low profile, noted Avi Benayahu, a former IDF spokesman who currently works as a communications consultant to senior Israeli officials.

“He didn’t make a big to-do out of it. He just did his job, using his good connections with the Turks. It’s not something we’re used to,” Benayahu said, contrasting Herzog’s style with Netanyahu’s.

Natali, center, and Mordy Oknin, right, an Israeli couple who had been jailed for photographing the Turkish president’s palace, seen after their arrival in their home in Modiin, on November 18, 2021. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

The same week, Herzog spoke on the phone with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

The conversation was relatively lengthy, at 40 minutes, though a large chunk of that time was needed for translating their remarks between Mandarin and English. The discussion ended with each inviting the other to visit to mark 30 years of ties. A trip to Beijing would be the second for Herzog, who visited as welfare minister in 2009.

Herzog’s office noted in a press announcement that the call was the first ever between an Israeli president and his Chinese counterpart.

Duvdevani, who noted that Peres was also used as a conduit to Beijing for previous governments, said the decision to speak to Herzog was an expression of appreciation for his stature, and recognition that he will still be there even when governments come and go.

“They understand Herzog’s important status and the fact that he will be
in the position for seven years,” she said.

President-elect Isaac Herzog with Yesh Atid leader at the Knesset after Herzog’s election, June 2, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

But Benayahu surmised that Beijing was drawn to Herzog’s ability to be a political player and open doors for them.

“They assessed Israel’s political situation and found Herzog to be the
eldest and most stable factor,” he said. “The Chinese know that Herzog also has the power to influence the Americans, as he has had a deep acquaintance with President [Joe] Biden since he was a senator. It may be that Xi is looking for connections with AIPAC or perhaps wants assistance with some of the Chinese companies that are working in the region. He thinks that talking to the Israeli president can be effective.”

Tight lips make diplomatic friendships

In 2016, Arab leaders in the region welcomed reports that Herzog was in talks with Netanyahu about creating a unity government as part of a new regional push for a Palestinian peace deal. Both Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi and Jordan’s King Abdullah, who were to play roles in the initiative, were in contact with Herzog, at the time leader of the opposition. But soon after, Netanyahu began to backtrack and the initiative fell apart as he instead reached out to hawkish Yisrael Beytenu to join his government.

For Abdullah, whose ties with Netanyahu were quickly souring, the move cemented the feeling that there was nobody in the upper echelons of Israel’s government for him to speak to.

Five years later, Abdullah was among the first regional leaders to call Herzog to congratulate him on becoming president, sighing with relief that he had been chosen. Since then, Herzog has traveled to Amman to meet Abdullah in person.

Israel’s President Isaac Herzog, left, cuts a ribbon with United Arab Emirates Ambassador to Israel Mohamed Al Khaja during the opening ceremony for the new UAE Embassy in Tel Aviv, Israel, July 14, 2021. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

Sissi was also among the first to call. The Egyptian president had been disappointed by Netanyahu’s reversal, but figured Herzog still had a future in politics and kept in touch over the years.

Herzog’s ability to maintain good contacts with Arab leaders is at least partially credited to his ability to be discreet.

“He has a fundamental characteristic which everyone knows to appreciate and for which he has paid a price. When he meets with [Palestinian Authority President] Mahmoud Abbas or King Abdullah he does not leak,” said Benayahu. “With his culture of zero leaks, he’s managed to build strong diplomatic relationships. Even though he came from being welfare minister, and when he came into the presidency they said he would be a social-welfare president, Herzog has monitored the situation now perfectly and knows that his diplomatic experience is a valuable addition.”

President Isaac Herzog during a visit to Lod on July 15, 2021. (Amos Ben-Gershom/GPO)

Herzog’s role as diplomat is bolstered by two senior foreign policy advisers in his close circle.

Shirley Heller, a senior foreign relations consultant, worked with Herzog in foreign policy when he was in the Knesset and joined the Jewish Agency’s foreign relations department when he was chairman of that body.

Herzog also has the help of Zvi Aviner Vapni, a former envoy who has been posted to the President’s Residence as an adviser from the Foreign Ministry. Vapni previously served as ambassador to the Philippines and Slovakia and was diplomatic adviser to the National Security Council.

The president’s diplomatic exploits have continued as lobbying around Iran nuclear talks has reached a fever pitch, partnering with Bennett and Lapid in a three-pronged attempt to press Israel’s position.

Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson (R) shakes hands with Israeli President Isaac Herzog ahead of talks inside Number 10 Downing Street in central London on November 23, 2021 during the Israeli president’s three-day visit. (JUSTIN TALLIS / POOL / AFP)

In late November, Herzog flew to Britain where he met with Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Two weeks earlier Johnson had met with Bennett in Glasgow, and a few days after Herzog’s visit, Lapid came calling to 10 Downing Street.

The fact that Johnson was willing to meet with three Israeli leaders, separately, in quick succession, to hear the same spiel, speaks volumes about close ties between London and Jerusalem.

But it could also raise uncomfortable questions about the standing of Israel’s new government, and whether Herzog is more elder statesman or chaperone.

Presidential pardons

Domestically, Herzog has approached his role largely in the mold of his predecessor Reuven Rivlin, who sought to take the sharp edges off tensions between various communities of Israelis divided by class, ethnicity and ideology.

Rivlin’s “four tribes” speech, in which he urged Israelis to move past the majority-minority dynamic to an understanding of Israel’s array of competing viewpoints and communities, has continued to reverberate in Herzog’s term.

Rivlin backed up his words with actions, for example when he became the first president to attend the annual ceremony marking the 1956 Kfar Qasim massacre of Arab civilians by Israeli police.

President Isaac Herzog addresses the memorial for the victims of the 1956 massacre in Kafr Qasim, October 29, 2021. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

His decision to condemn the massacre in person was of immense importance to Arab society in Israel, and Herzog wisely followed in his footsteps, attending the ceremony and asking for forgiveness on behalf of the country.

But Rivlin also became entangled in political disputes when he tried to defend Israel’s law enforcement system and other state institutions from attacks by Netanyahu and his allies, drawing the fury of the former prime minister and his premier.

Herzog, by contrast, has made a conscious decision from day one to avoid conflict with any political players, including Netanyahu, and has used his pulpit to try and lower the temperature of political discourse by attempting to appeal to everybody. That’s a luxury Rivlin didn’t have.

President Reuven Rivlin (right) with his successor Issac Herzog and Herzog’s wife Michael. (Kobi Gideon / GPO)

“During Rivlin’s presidency, Netanyahu had a clear majority and the term was marked by a large number of arguments between him and Netanyahu, which cast a shadow over his attempts to build unity among the people,” Duvdevani said. “Herzog, on the other hand, is serving alongside a government the likes of which we have never seen before. Herzog is coordinated with them and is the expression of the consensus position between the various parts that make up the government.”

Nonetheless, his appeals for civility are something of a tall order, with the country remaining largely divided politically in the wake of four rounds of elections.

Netanyahu supporters continue to fume over Likud being ousted from power and many to the right of the political spectrum view Bennett, whose party has only six seats and whose coalition relies on the support of many of the right’s traditional foes, as an illegitimate prime minister.

For all his political and diplomatic acumen, Herzog’s words have little effect on the aggrieved right. But in his decision to light a Hanukkah candle in Hebron, the president found a way, even if it was for just a moment, to give them a taste of something other than bitterness.

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