Herzog's diplomatic skills are a major asset to Israel - analysis

Because of his long political history, Herzog is known-- and trusted as someone discreet -- in the international arena.

 Israeli president Isaac Herzog speaks during a Conference of the 'Besheva' group in Jerusalem, on February 7, 2022.  (photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)
Israeli president Isaac Herzog speaks during a Conference of the 'Besheva' group in Jerusalem, on February 7, 2022.
(photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)

Last summer’s presidential campaign in the Knesset was a refreshingly civil affair.

Isaac Herzog ran against Miriam Peretz. Herzog, of impeccable Zionist pedigree: the grandson of a former chief rabbi, the son of a former president. Peretz, with a compelling Zionist story: the mother of two fallen IDF soldiers whose positive, uplifting Israeli message in the face of despair touched the hearts of many.

A Mizrahi woman who lives just beyond the Green Line, Peretz’s victory would have sent to the President’s Residence a president cut from a completely different cloth than what the country had been accustomed to. But it was not to be.

Herzog – who over a long career as MK, government minister, Labor Party leader and Jewish Agency head, built up close relationships with those MKs who would be casting their votes for the president – easily defeated Peretz 87 to 26.

Though some were disappointed at Peretz’s defeat, believing that she would have brought something refreshingly different to what could be a stodgy position, Herzog’s upcoming travel schedule shows the diplomatic value-added he brings to the job. The president is scheduled to travel to Greece this week, to Cyprus the week after, before making what could be a landmark trip shortly after that to Turkey.

 FROM LEFT: Supreme Court President Esther Hayut, President Isaac Herzog, Maj.-Gen. Orli Markman, Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kohavi. (credit: KOBI GIDEON/GPO) FROM LEFT: Supreme Court President Esther Hayut, President Isaac Herzog, Maj.-Gen. Orli Markman, Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kohavi. (credit: KOBI GIDEON/GPO)

Herzog is currently at the center of efforts to reset Israeli-Turkish diplomatic ties that capsized over the last 15 years as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan steered Turkey into decidedly unfriendly waters toward Israel. Now, because Erdogan is finding those waters rough and lonely, he is looking to steer the ship back toward Jerusalem – and Herzog is the Israeli he apparently trusts to give him the hand signals to help guide him back.

It is difficult to imagine that Peretz would have been up to this task. Not because she does not have many attributes and skills, but because she does not have the diplomatic experience or heft, nor the exposure on the international stage that Herzog brings to the table. Because of his long political history, Herzog is known – and trusted as someone discreet – in the international arena.

As Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said two weeks ago, “In my eyes, the president is doing an excellent job. He is an extraordinary diplomatic asset for solving problems.”

Herzog traveled to Amman in July and helped put Israeli-Jordanian ties on a better footing after those ties floundered during Netanyahu’s later years. He was the first Israeli president to speak by phone to his Chinese counterpart. And he broke ground as the highest-ranking Israeli official ever to visit the United Arab Emirates.

Herzog will need all the diplomatic skills he acquired over the years when he goes to Greece and Cyprus in the coming days and tries to convince them that they have nothing to worry about as a result of Israel’s suddenly warming ties their bitter historic rival Turkey.

Greece and Cyprus are likely to be skeptical, which is why Israel benefits from having someone with as much political and diplomatic experience as Herzog running interference. Over the years he has found himself in the heart of delicate negotiations, and knows well how to balance interests and how to be reassuring. With both Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid in their jobs for only eight months, Herzog brings to the task a standing that neither Bennett nor Lapid have yet established.

And then the following week Herzog is expected to go to Turkey, where he will have to muster all his charm and skills as a negotiator in talks with Erdogan regarding what is needed to reset Israel-Turkey ties.

Erdogan and Herzog have spoken a number of times since the June presidential election. Erdogan initiated the first call in July to congratulate Herzog on his victory; Herzog called Erdogan in November when the Oaknin couple was released from a Turkish jail after being arrested for filming Erdogan’s Istanbul palace; Erdogan called Herzog when the latter’s mother died in January; and Herzog called Erdogan in February to wish him a speedy recovery after he fell ill with COVID.

Erdogan obviously selected Herzog as his Israeli interlocutor, and Herzog has proven up to the job. One reason is because he has the prime minister’s full confidence.

“We have total trust,” Bennett said of his relationship with Herzog, adding that he doesn’t remember a time where a prime minister and president shared the type of relationship he has with Herzog.

This type of relationship definitely did not exist when Benjamin Netanyahu was prime minister and Reuven Rivlin, whom he neither liked nor trusted – and the feeling was mutual – was president. Netanyahu would never have entrusted Rivlin with a sensitive diplomatic mission of this magnitude. Bennett has no problem doing the same with Herzog.

Bennett, unlike Netanyahu, has shown that he has no qualms sharing the diplomatic limelight, and there is a chemistry between him and Herzog that is a big plus for the country. It places another player, an extra player, a 12th man in football terms, on the diplomatic playing field. Herzog knows many of the world leaders, has interacted with them, and feels comfortable engaging in high diplomacy.

Herzog’s presence also gives foreign leaders a sense of a stable address in the midst of Israel’s always choppy political seas. He provides continuity at a time when foreign leaders are currently dealing with Bennett, but also realizing that in another year and a half, the current prime minister will shuffle off to the Interior Ministry, to be replaced by Lapid who himself only has a prime ministerial shelf life – in the best-case scenario – of just over two years.

Then, new elections will be held, if not sooner, after which a new resident may very well move into the Prime Minister’s Residence on Balfour Street. The one given through all this is that Herzog will remain in his job for a total of seven years. For foreign leaders that amounts to a valuable pillar of stability well worth cultivating in a famously shifting and unstable Israeli political environment.