The Israeli presidency and the significance of seven

Anyone familiar with Herzog can tell you that “you ain’t seen nothing yet.”

 Isaac Herzog is sworn in as president, alongside outgoing president Reuven Rivlin and Knesset Speaker Mickey Levy (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
Isaac Herzog is sworn in as president, alongside outgoing president Reuven Rivlin and Knesset Speaker Mickey Levy
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

Seven is an important number in Jewish history and tradition. God created the world in six days, and on the seventh day, He rested. Joseph interpreted Pharaoh’s dream telling him that there would be seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine. Torah readings are divided into seven portions.

In modern Israel, the number one citizen of the state, namely the president, serves for seven years, meaning that every seven years there are periods in the year in which there are two different presidents.

The year 2021 was just like 2014 had been seven years earlier. In 2014, Shimon Peres had been president for just over the first half of the year before passing the baton to Reuven Rivlin, and this year, it was Rivlin who was president up until July, the seventh month in the civil calendar, who passed the baton to Isaac Herzog.

Each president has his own style, even though the vast majority of the events at which they preside are much the same, with the greatest excitement during an election year.

Less than a month before leaving office, Rivlin on June 14 (twice seven) hosted Israel’s 36th government and was photographed for posterity with its members.

Rivlin was the only president who had to deal with five Knesset elections during his term. Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, who served for two five-year terms before the law was changed to one seven-year term following the presidency of Ezer Weizman, went through four Knesset elections.

Leaving office with a government intact was a source of great comfort to Rivlin, who had previously been a Knesset speaker.

Herzog was sworn in as president on the seventh day of the seventh month in 2021, and 21 is three times seven. There must be something symbolic in that.

 First president Chaim Weizmann with Emir Faisal I of Iraq in Syria (credit: Wikimedia Commons) First president Chaim Weizmann with Emir Faisal I of Iraq in Syria (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Although Israel’s first and seventh presidents had been members of the same family – Ezer Weizman was the nephew of Chaim Weizmann – Isaac Herzog is the son of sixth president Chaim Herzog, and they are therefore the first father and son presidents of Israel.

Chaim Herzog served two five-year terms, but his son will serve only one seven-year term.

Isaac Herzog came into office at an unfortunate time during the height of the pandemic, so that much of the pomp and ceremony accompanying such an event was absent, including at the actual changing of the guard at the President’s Residence, where there were far fewer participants than there had been in the past, and of course everyone had to wear masks.

In the half year that he has been in office, Herzog had to close many events that were previously open to family members and organizational activists, a factor that diminished the pride and glory moments of many honorees at various events. Some events were simultaneously broadcast on Facebook, which at least enabled relatives to witness the swearing in of a judge, or the receipt of a certificate for some accomplishment – but it simply wasn’t the same as being there in the flesh.

Among the various repetitive activities of the president is the accepting of credentials of foreign ambassadors, who are heads of diplomatic missions in Israel.

Although it was Rivlin who accepted the credentials of United Arab Emirates Ambassador Mohamed Al Khaja, it was Herzog, only a week after his own inauguration, who joined Al Khaja in opening the UAE embassy in the building that houses the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange.

In September, Herzog accepted credentials from six ambassadors, among them Khaled Yusuf Al Jalahma, the ambassador of Bahrain. Herzog has since then accepted two more groups of ambassadors presenting credentials, and is due for another series of ceremonies of this kind in February.

This augurs well for Israel’s standing in the international community. It means that foreign ministries around the world recognize the importance of having their representatives in Israel irrespective of what may be happening with regard to the pandemic.

Herzog has already taken two trips abroad – one to Jordan to discuss regional concerns with King Abdullah, and one to Ukraine to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the Babi Yar massacre.

In the interim he has received several invitations to visit other countries, and he would like to take them up – especially those to South and Central America to places where he has yearned to go since the days when he was tourism minister.

Not every president goes to South and Central America, though Shimon Peres certainly did. Presidents of Israel all go to the United States and Europe. Rivlin traveled extensively to Europe, including Germany, against whose first ambassador to Israel he had protested vehemently decades earlier. But Rivlin has learned to make his peace with Germany and German officials. One of his close friends is German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier.

Chaim Herzog, who as an officer in the British Army had been among the liberators of Bergen-Belsen, was the first president of Israel to set foot on German soil, and chances are high that his son will follow in his footsteps.

Meanwhile, Isaac Herzog, who has thus far hosted a couple of state dinners for visiting presidents, is eagerly awaiting the visit of the President of Ecuador Guillermo Lasso, who is reportedly very keen to come to Israel. This was confirmed by Ecuador’s Ambassador to Israel Helen Sophie Deller Klein, when she presented her credentials earlier this month, and by Ecuador’s permanent representative to the United Nations when he was part of a group of UN ambassadors who met with Herzog last week. 

What is refreshing about Herzog is his ability to adapt himself to whoever he engages with in conversation. His range of knowledge is remarkable, especially in terms of the political history and current political events in numerous countries around the world. His interlocutors often register surprise, but are very pleased to answer his questions.

Herzog has a gift for turning a statement into a question, which helps to put the other person at ease. He also leans forward with a very interested expression and the hint of a smile on his face, which has proved on many occasions to be an instant icebreaker.

Herzog hit the ground running when he took office, and keeps adding to his load.

Although the presidency is an apolitical position, Herzog is indeed proving that he is the president of all the citizens of Israel regardless of creed or color or political affiliation. He is also involved in diplomatic politics, examples of which are in his conversations with the king of Jordan, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his New Year phone call to Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, several days before Novy God.

It’s still early in the piece. Anyone familiar with Herzog can tell you that “you ain’t seen nothing yet.”