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


Meretz MK Mossi Raz has no longer been shy about expressing his dissatisfaction with President Isaac Herzog over the president’s choice to gentle a Hanukkah menorah on the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron.

Ultimate week, as Herzog visited the divided shrine within the divided West Financial institution town, Raz and a handful of left-wing activists took up a place at a close-by intersection. The protesters held up indicators decrying Israeli “apartheid” and promised to “banish the darkness” as they raged in opposition to the verdict of a former head of the dovish Exertions birthday party to plant his flag in a town on the center of Israeli-Palestinian tensions.

A couple of days sooner than the lighting fixtures, Raz and Herzog came about to run into every different within the central town of Modiin. Each had been visiting the mourning Kay circle of relatives, which was once sitting shiva following the terrorist homicide of Eliyahu David Kay in Jerusalem on November 21.

Outdoor the Kay house, the 2 shook arms warmly.

“I am getting why you may have determined to gentle the candle in Hebron,” Raz informed Herzog. “You’re the president for everybody. It’s your process. My process is to protest in opposition to you.”

This wasn’t a brand new state of affairs for Herzog. As a savvy political actor, he understood the left’s inevitable complaint of his discuss with to Hebron was once a part of a well-known dance choreographed around the Israeli political degree. He was once prepared to soak up the brickbats in carrier of a bigger purpose: maintaining an risky Israel on a good keel.

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

Six months into his presidency, the veteran baby-kisser — who has been a minister, an opposition chief as head of the Exertions birthday party, and a cupboard secretary beneath Ehud Barak — is appearing himself to be adept at navigating the present political map’s peculiar twists and hairpin turns, whilst appearing as a beacon for the ones taking a look to interact with the Israeli political area.

The present govt led by means of Top Minister Naftali Bennett is a Frankenstein’s monster of political pursuits and alliances from around the spectrum with a majority so slender that it may be blown up by means of a unmarried recalcitrant Knesset member. Will have to it ultimate some other yr and a part, some other chief, Overseas Minister Yair Lapid, will step in and take Bennett’s position.

Amid all of the turbulence swirling round Israel’s management of past due, Herzog is already appearing that he could be a stabilizing power throughout his seven year-term. He might glance boyish (even at 61), however actually, he’s observed because the grownup within the room, each at house and in another country.

President Isaac Herzog (left), Top Minister Naftali Bennett (heart) and Protection Minister Benny Gantz attend a memorial rite for the fallen Israeli squaddies of the 1973 Yom Kippur Battle, on the Nationwide Corridor of Remembrance, Mount Herzl, Jerusalem, September 19, 2021. (Ohad Zwigenberg/POOL)

Overseas leaders have taken notice, talking with Herzog on issues that may typically be reserved for the top minister or international minister, thus turning the presidency from a little-regarded figurehead into a vital diplomatic power.

Bennett, who’s considered one of Israel’s youngest top ministers at 49, has proven adulthood and self-confidence in giving Herzog the gap he wishes to move diplomatically. In contrast to former top minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Bennett does no longer search to dim the president’s glow when he shines at the global degree.

Bennett and Lapid, who don’t seem to be precisely political neophytes, nonetheless can’t fit the affect and enjoy Herzog brings to the desk on sophisticated affairs stretching out of doors Israel’s borders. The president has spent the ultimate 22 years as a political candidate and public servant, maximum not too long ago as head of the Jewish Company, and has an extended historical past of forging private connections with vital figures around the globe, together with Jewish group leaders he has doggedly saved in touch with.

President Isaac Herzog (L) meets together with his German counterpart within the Ukrainian capital Kyiv on October 6, 2021, forward of the memorial rite to mark the Babi Yar bloodbath. (Haim Zach/GPO)

At house, he’s recognized for having heat relationships with Knesset individuals from each political birthday party.

“Herzog understands that during his position, he wishes the cooperation of everyone. As I see it, Bennett and Lapid paintings in sync [with Herzog] and so they do it neatly,” stated Efrat Duvdevani, who headed the President’s Place of abode throughout the tenure of Shimon Peres and lately runs the Peres Middle for Peace. “Herzog has taken upon himself a number of topics and is coming into spaces the place he can upload vital worth. He’s doing it no longer simply locally, but additionally at the diplomatic entrance.”

The entire president’s Rolodex

3 occasions have crystalized Herzog’s arrival as a vital political and diplomatic participant.

The primary was once his paintings to defuse main tensions round a deliberate ladies’s prayer amassing on the Western Wall in early November. Whilst Netanyahu, now opposition chief, amplified calls by means of ultra-Orthodox political leaders for protesters to collect on the holy web site to heckle Ladies of the Wall and different modern teams, Herzog labored the telephones and were given Gilad Kariv, a Reform rabbi and Exertions MK, to cancel his plans to wait the carrier in fortify of the ladies’s teams.

Extremely-Orthodox MKs at the different aspect of the problem adopted go well with, and a significant attainable conflict was once have shyed away from, with protests final 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 discussion board beneath the auspices of the President’s Place of abode to get a hold of an agreed-upon answer for the problem of an respectable pluralistic prayer house on the Western Wall.

Participants of the Ladies of the Wall motion hang Rosh Hodesh prayers on the Western Wall in Jerusalem, November 5, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Via taking at the factor, Herzog was once putting himself into one of the vital vital debates to have riven Israel and Diaspora Jewry lately, which holds importance some distance out of doors the confines of home Israeli politics.

Weeks later, Herzog performed a significant position in negotiations with Turkey over an Israeli couple detained for allegedly spying, after considered one of them took an image of considered one of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s palaces.

Herzog had spoken to Erdogan by means of telephone in July, however given the subtle diplomatic state of affairs across the arrest, he feared going immediately again to the Turkish president may finally end up complicating issues. So as a substitute he finessed lower-ranking Turkish officers and satisfied them that the Oknins belonged again house in Modiin. The Turkish officers conveyed to Herzog from upstairs that Erdogan anticipated calls from him and from Bennett as soon as the affair was once wrapped up.

‘He didn’t make a large to-do out of it. He simply did his process. It’s no longer one thing we’re used to’

A observation from Bennett and Lapid pronouncing the discharge of the 2 Israelis on November 17 credited Herzog for his efforts to spring them from jail. An afternoon later each Bennett’s and Herzog’s places of work introduced that they’d every spoken to Erdogan.

Regardless of his position within the go back of the couple, Herzog saved a rather low profile, famous Avi Benayahu, a former IDF spokesman who these days works as a communications guide to senior Israeli officers.

“He didn’t make a large to-do out of it. He simply did his process, the usage of his excellent connections with the Turks. It’s no longer one thing we’re used to,” Benayahu stated, contrasting Herzog’s taste with Netanyahu’s.

Natali, heart, and Mordy Oknin, proper, an Israeli couple who were jailed for photographing the Turkish president’s palace, observed after their arrival of their house in Modiin, on November 18, 2021. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

The similar week, Herzog spoke at the telephone with Chinese language President Xi Jinping.

The dialog was once rather long, at 40 mins, even though a big bite of that point was once wanted for translating their remarks between Mandarin and English. The dialogue ended with every inviting the opposite to discuss with to mark 30 years of ties. A go back and forth to Beijing will be the 2nd for Herzog, who visited as welfare minister in 2009.

Herzog’s place of business famous in a press announcement that the decision was once the primary ever between an Israeli president and his Chinese language counterpart.

Duvdevani, who famous that Peres was once extensively utilized as a conduit to Beijing for earlier governments, stated the verdict to talk to Herzog was once an expression of appreciation for his stature, and popularity that he’s going to nonetheless be there even if governments come and move.

“They perceive Herzog’s vital standing and the truth that he’s going to be
within the place for seven years,” she stated.

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

However Benayahu surmised that Beijing was once interested in Herzog’s skill to be a political participant and open doorways for them.

“They assessed Israel’s political state of affairs and located Herzog to be the
eldest and maximum solid issue,” he stated. “The Chinese language know that Herzog additionally has the facility to persuade the American citizens, as he has had a deep acquaintance with President [Joe] Biden since he was once a senator. It can be that Xi is in search of connections with AIPAC or in all probability needs help with one of the Chinese language firms which might be operating within the area. He thinks that speaking to the Israeli president can also be efficient.”

Tight lips make diplomatic friendships

In 2016, Arab leaders within the area welcomed experiences that Herzog was once in talks with Netanyahu about making a solidarity govt as a part of a brand new regional push for a Palestinian peace deal. Each Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi and Jordan’s King Abdullah, who had been to play roles within the initiative, had been in touch with Herzog, on the time chief of the opposition. However quickly after, Netanyahu started to back down and the initiative fell aside as he as a substitute reached out to hawkish Yisrael Beytenu to sign up for his govt.

For Abdullah, whose ties with Netanyahu had been temporarily souring, the transfer cemented the sensation that there was once no person within the higher echelons of Israel’s govt for him to talk to.

5 years later, Abdullah was once a number of the first regional leaders to name Herzog to congratulate him on changing into president, sighing with aid that he were selected. Since then, Herzog has traveled to Amman to fulfill Abdullah in particular person.

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

Sissi was once additionally a number of the first to name. The Egyptian president were upset by means of Netanyahu’s reversal, however figured Herzog nonetheless had a long run in politics and saved involved through the years.

Herzog’s skill to deal with excellent contacts with Arab leaders is no less than in part credited to his skill to be discreet.

“He has a elementary feature which we all know to comprehend and for which he has paid a worth. When he meets with [Palestinian Authority President] Mahmoud Abbas or King Abdullah he does no longer leak,” stated Benayahu. “Along with his tradition of 0 leaks, he’s controlled to construct robust diplomatic relationships. Despite the fact that he got here from being welfare minister, and when he got here into the presidency they stated he can be a social-welfare president, Herzog has monitored the location now completely and is aware of that his diplomatic enjoy is a treasured addition.”

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

Herzog’s position as diplomat is reinforced by means of two senior international coverage advisers in his shut circle.

Shirley Heller, a senior international family members guide, labored with Herzog in international coverage when he was once within the Knesset and joined the Jewish Company’s international family members division when he was once chairman of that frame.

Herzog additionally has the assistance of Zvi Aviner Vapni, a former envoy who has been posted to the President’s Place of abode as an adviser from the Overseas Ministry. Vapni up to now served as ambassador to the Philippines and Slovakia and was once diplomatic adviser to the Nationwide Safety Council.

The president’s diplomatic exploits have persisted as lobbying round Iran nuclear talks has reached a fever pitch, partnering with Bennett and Lapid in a three-pronged try to press Israel’s place.

Britain’s Top Minister Boris Johnson (R) shakes arms with Israeli President Isaac Herzog forward of talks within Quantity 10 Downing Side road in central London on November 23, 2021 throughout the Israeli president’s three-day discuss with. (JUSTIN TALLIS / POOL / AFP)

In past due November, Herzog flew to Britain the place he met with Top Minister Boris Johnson. Two weeks previous Johnson had met with Bennett in Glasgow, and a couple of days after Herzog’s discuss with, Lapid got here calling to ten Downing Side road.

The truth that Johnson was once prepared to fulfill with 3 Israeli leaders, one by one, in fast succession, to listen to the similar spiel, speaks volumes about shut ties between London and Jerusalem.

However it might additionally carry uncomfortable questions in regards to the status of Israel’s new govt, and whether or not Herzog is extra elder statesman or chaperone.

Presidential pardons

Locally, Herzog has approached his position in large part within the mildew of his predecessor Reuven Rivlin, who sought to take the pointy edges off tensions between more than a few communities of Israelis divided by means of elegance, ethnicity and beliefs.

Rivlin’s “four tribes” speech, through which he steered Israelis to transport previous the majority-minority dynamic to an working out of Israel’s array of competing viewpoints and communities, has persisted to reverberate in Herzog’s time period.

Rivlin subsidized up his phrases with movements, as an example when he turned into the primary president to wait the yearly rite marking the 1956 Kfar Qasim bloodbath of Arab civilians by means of Israeli police.

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

His choice to sentence the bloodbath in particular person was once of immense significance to Arab society in Israel, and Herzog properly adopted in his footsteps, attending the rite and soliciting for forgiveness on behalf of the rustic.

However Rivlin additionally turned into entangled in political disputes when he attempted to protect Israel’s legislation enforcement machine and different state establishments from assaults by means of Netanyahu and his allies, drawing the fury of the previous top minister and his premier.

Herzog, in contrast, has made a mindful choice from day one to keep away from battle with any political gamers, together with Netanyahu, and has used his pulpit to check out and decrease the temperature of political discourse by means of making an attempt to enchantment to everyone. That’s a luxurious Rivlin didn’t have.

President Reuven Rivlin (proper) together with his successor Issac Herzog and Herzog’s spouse Michael. (Kobi Gideon / GPO)

“All through Rivlin’s presidency, Netanyahu had a transparent majority and the time period was once marked by means of a lot of arguments between him and Netanyahu, which forged a shadow over his makes an attempt to construct solidarity a number of the other folks,” Duvdevani stated. “Herzog, alternatively, is serving along a central authority the likes of which we’ve by no means observed sooner than. Herzog is coordinated with them and is the expression of the consensus place between the more than a few portions that make up the federal government.”

Nevertheless, his appeals for civility are one thing of a tall order, with the rustic final in large part divided politically within the wake of 4 rounds of elections.

Netanyahu supporters proceed to fume over Likud being ousted from energy and plenty of to the fitting of the political spectrum view Bennett, whose birthday party has simplest six seats and whose coalition depends on the fortify of most of the proper’s conventional foes, as an illegitimate top minister.

For all his political and diplomatic acumen, Herzog’s phrases have little impact at the aggrieved proper. However in his choice to gentle a Hanukkah candle in Hebron, the president discovered some way, even though it was once for only a second, to offer them a style of one thing rather then bitterness.

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