Isaac, Michal Herzog: Israel's diplomatic, unifying faces

No. 11 on The Jerusalem Post's Top 50 Most Influential Jews of 2022: Israeli President Isaac Herzog and First Lady Michal Herzog.

 Israel's President Isaac Herzog and First Lady Michal Herzog: The diplomatic and unifying presidential couple. (photo credit: TOBIAS SCHWARTZ/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES)
Israel's President Isaac Herzog and First Lady Michal Herzog: The diplomatic and unifying presidential couple.

If his performance to date is an indication of what he will be doing over the next five and three-quarter years, President Isaac Herzog will be the diplomatic face of Israel, especially if the country’s political instability with a series of interim governments, dissolutions of Knesset and the frequency of national elections continues. There is some comfort in the fact that the presidency and its incumbent will remain constant until July 2028.

Diplomacy is integral to the president’s duties. He signs the letters of credence for Israeli ambassadors being posted abroad, and receives the letters of credence of foreign ambassadors serving in Israel. He hosts every visiting head of state, irrespective of whether the visit is a state visit or a working visit. He also gets to meet visiting prime ministers, foreign ministers and other high-ranking foreign dignitaries. 

In addition, he is in regular telephone contact with world leaders. And he gets to travel abroad – and does so quite frequently. Moreover, within a week of taking office, Herzog helped to open the UAE Embassy in Israel, joining the UAE’s first ambassador to Israel Mohamed Al Khaja at the inauguration ceremony in Tel Aviv.

At the time of writing, Herzog, who was elected in the first week of July 2021, has been to Jordan three times. Ukraine, United Kingdom twice – the second time for the funeral of Queen Elizabeth. United Arab Emirates, twice, Greece, Cyprus, Turkey, France, Switzerland, twice – first in Davos for the World Economic Conference and most recently in Basel for the 125th anniversary of the World Jewish Congress. But prior to that, the Czech Republic. And this month, to Germany on a state visit and for the 50th anniversary commemoration of the Munich Massacre.

Herzog and his wife, Michal, had been in some of these countries when he served in other capacities or simply on vacation. They were previously in Prague in 1991. While there, they posed for a photograph on the famed Karl Bridge. When they returned in 2022, they wore attire similar to that which they had worn in 1991 and again posed on the bridge against the identical backdrop.

 President Isaac Herzog in his office at Beit Hanassi. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST) President Isaac Herzog in his office at Beit Hanassi. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

In Switzerland, Herzog emulated Theodor Herzl and his late father, president Chaim Herzog, by posing in a near identical position on the balcony of the Hotel Les Trois Rois.

The important diplomatic and domestic roles of Israel's president

Presidents of Israel always attend the local Independence Day celebrations of the United States and generally those of Egypt. President Reuven Rivlin also attended the Jordanian Independence Day celebrations; and Shimon Peres, because of his special relationship with France, attended the Bastille Day receptions.

Herzog has attended receptions in Israel for Bastille Day, the birthday of the Emperor of Japan, American Independence Day and Indian Independence Day. And he has sent congratulatory videos to various other receptions to which he was invited but could not attend due to other commitments.

Twice a year, on Independence Day and just before Rosh Hashana, Herzog hosts the heads of foreign diplomatic missions in Israel. He also hosts a special pre-Christmas reception for the religious and lay leaders of Christian communities, and an iftar dinner to which ambassadors of Muslim countries, Arab mayors and Muslim religious and lay leaders are invited.

Herzog's diplomatic successes for Israel

It would appear that when Israel is confronted with some kind of diplomatic crisis or wants to cement existing relationships, Herzog is called on to try to mend the breach or to enhance relations and take them to a new level.

He is largely credited with soothing ruffled feathers in Turkey and Jordan. And he has spoken to President Vladimir Putin about Russia’s decision to bar the activities of the Jewish Agency on Russian soil.

Presumably, he will also be asked to intercede in the dispute in which the Chabad movement is having with Russia over the ownership of the Schneersohn Library, which was previously owned by Rabbi Yosef Yitzhak Schneersohn, the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe and father-in-law of the seventh and last Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson. The library consists of some 12,000 religious books and 25,000 pages of handwritten manuscripts. 

During the Russian Revolution, a large part of the library was confiscated by the Bolsheviks, nationalized and placed in the Lenin National Library. Banished from the Soviet Union, the Rebbe managed to salvage the remaining part of his library, which he took with him to Warsaw. But with the Nazi invasion of Poland, he fled to America, leaving his precious books and manuscripts in a warehouse, which was subsequently looted by the Nazis, who transported the contents to Berlin.

In 1945, the library came into the possession of the conquering Red Army and was placed in the Russian military archives. The Russian authorities refuse to surrender the library to Chabad, possibly because the movement is headquartered in New York. 

Herzog is the president of the Jewish world

This example is presented only to illustrate that even though Herzog is the president of Israel, he is also widely regarded as the president of the Jewish world. Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and totally secular Jews representing a vast array of organizations and institutions seek to meet with him when they are in Israel or when he is visiting their countries. Every president of Israel, when traveling abroad to any country that has a Jewish community, no matter how small, includes a meeting with the Jewish leadership and/or the wider Jewish community in his itinerary.

On the home front, Herzog meets with representatives of the bulk of Israel’s human mosaic – Jews, Muslims, Christians and people of other faiths. He presides over the appointments of new judges and other high-ranking civil servants. He meets with the leaders of every political party. He either hosts or visits every branch of Israel’s security network. He visits schools and medical centers, goes to book fairs, theater premieres and film festivals, hosts Bible study gatherings, regularly attends synagogue services, consults with experts on climate change and visited Jerusalem’s crowded Mahaneh Yehuda market. And that’s just a fraction of what he does.

His wife accompanies him on most of his visits to towns and cities around the country, and she sits in on the majority of events that are held at the President’s Residence. Of all the wives of presidents of Israel, including her late mother-in-law, she is arguably the most visible and most involved and does not steer clear of the nitty-gritty. She recently visited a women’s prison and spoke to some of the inmates serving time for a variety of crimes. She has also undertaken other duties in which the president is not personally involved, even though he may sometimes attend them. In those in which he is involved, she does not hesitate to voice her opinion – albeit in a soft and polite manner.

The president includes her in many of the statements that he makes, and to some extent relies on her advice. They both served in the Intelligence Corps’ prestigious Unit 8200, after which both studied law and graduated from Tel Aviv University. Although the president is now apolitical, when he was in politics, they were politically on the same wavelength.

Michal Herzog has worked her entire married life as a lawyer and executive in major charitable organizations. Both she and her husband describe themselves as a team. Few people would be surprised if, when Isaac’s term concludes in 2028, Michal becomes a candidate for Israel’s 12th president. She most certainly will have completed her training and would know more than any other candidate about what it entails to be president.