Two years into his term, President Isaac Herzog has changed his office for the better

PRESIDENTIAL AFFAIRS: Though traditionally a ceremonial position, Herzog has turned his own presidency into much more than that, unlike Reuven Rivlin and Peres before him.

 PRESIDENT ISAAC HERZOG convenes the first of many meetings between the coalition and opposition in an attempt to bridge the judicial reform impasse. (photo credit: GPO)
PRESIDENT ISAAC HERZOG convenes the first of many meetings between the coalition and opposition in an attempt to bridge the judicial reform impasse.
(photo credit: GPO)

Today is the second anniversary of the inauguration of Isaac Herzog as the 11th president of Israel. Between getting involved in sensitive diplomatic issues with countries like Turkey, to spurring the drive to reach a compromise in the contentious judicial overhaul debate that has torn the country apart, Herzog has proven to be the country’s most hands-on and engaged president it has ever seen. 

That includes Shimon Peres, a former prime minister and foreign minister who was engaged in diplomacy in both roles, as well as during his presidency. 

But Herzog can claim to be even more active. Barely a week into office, he helped to inaugurate the United Arab Emirates’s embassy in Tel Aviv, and also attended the Bastille Day reception at the French ambassador’s residence in Jaffa.

His background as the son of Israel’s sixth president, and as a member of Knesset, a minister, a political party leader, and chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, all contributed to the way he conducts his present role.

Though traditionally a ceremonial position, Herzog has turned his own presidency into much more than that, unlike Reuven Rivlin and Peres before him. But Herzog, who is much younger than his two immediate predecessors, has the mental energy and physical stamina to run that extra mile. In addition, he has diplomacy in his genes, his upbringing, and his relatives by marriage.

 Israeli president Isaac Herzog attends the President's Award for volunteering at the president's residence in Jerusalem, June 14, 2023. (credit: NOAM REVKIN FENTON/FLASH90)
Israeli president Isaac Herzog attends the President's Award for volunteering at the president's residence in Jerusalem, June 14, 2023. (credit: NOAM REVKIN FENTON/FLASH90)

The family business

His father, in one of his varied and distinguished careers, was Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, during which time the current president was still a boy, attending school in New York. There, at his parents’ table, he met many diplomats and other dignitaries. His uncle, Abba Eban, who was married to a sister of his mother’s, was a key lobbyist for the passing of the 1947 United Nations resolution on the partition of Palestine, and was later both an ambassador to the UN and Washington. He also served as a foreign minister.

Herzog’s older brother Michael is currently Israel’s ambassador to the US, and their paternal uncle, Yaakov Herzog, was Israel’s ambassador to Canada.

IN OCTOBER 2021, Herzog went to Ukraine for the inauguration of the Babyn Yar memorial center, and naturally met with President Volodymyr Zelensky, with whom he has spoken on the phone many times since. A month later, Herzog paid the first of three visits to London. The second was for the funeral of Queen Elizabeth, and the third was for the coronation of King Charles III.

Herzog did a lot of traveling in 2022. He was the first Israeli president to visit the UAE, after which he went to the United States. Shortly after his return, he again visited the UAE, and also went to Bahrain, scoring yet another diplomatic first with regard to the presidency.

His greatest diplomatic achievement to date was in his deep involvement in the rapprochement between Turkey and Israel. Prior to his state visit to Turkey in March 2022, Herzog engaged in several telephone conversations with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and they have again spoken by phone since the resumption of normalization in the bilateral relationship.

In approximately two weeks, Herzog will once again be meeting with US President Joe Biden, whom he hosted in Jerusalem almost a year ago, and with whom he later met in Washington last October. At that time, there was no fissure in the US-Israel relationship.

But Biden’s snub of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has angered many Israeli and American Jews, including some who would prefer not to have Netanyahu at the helm of government. They perceive the lack of an invitation for Netanyahu to come to the White House as an insult to both Israel and American Jewry. They don’t buy assurances by outgoing US Ambassador Tom Nides that the invitation will come eventually. Nor are they mollified by the ambassador’s reminder that Netanyahu has been to the White House more than any other world leader.

The question is: Will Herzog’s diplomatic skills work as well with Biden as they did with Erdogan? Will Netanyahu receive that much sought-after invitation a week after Herzog returns to Israel, or even while Herzog is still in America?

We won’t have to wait long to find out.

Although the president is supposed to be apolitical, the media is notified when and where he is voting in national elections for the Knesset, and the president does officially task the prime minister-designate to form a government. Moreover, since the political chaos that was fueled by the proposed judicial reform, Herzog provided a so-called neutral setting for discussions between representatives of the government coalition and the opposition, in the hope that they would reach a modus vivendi.

Herzog is a great believer in dialogue as a means of compromise and consensus, and encourages it not only at the political level, but also in schools and community centers. But so far his good intentions have borne little fruit in the political arena.

Fearful of the possibility of a civil war, especially in light of the massive and sometimes violent anti-judicial overhaul demonstrations around the country, Herzog – a lawyer by profession, and who also has considerable experience as a legislator – has been in consultation with politicians and various legal experts, and has come up with what he believes will give greater constitutional power to Basic Laws.

Though subject to certain restrictions with regard to oversight, Herzog’s proposal, had it been accepted, would eventually lead to Israel’s adoption of a constitution.

Certain people in favor of judicial reform, as it was initially presented, are convinced that Herzog’s views on the subject are guided by his political ideology, and not by the need for what they perceive as constructive judicial reform. Some detractors accuse him of being a “dirty leftist,” possibly because he was less discreet than usual in criticizing the nature of judicial reform. 

It should not be forgotten, especially in the current atmosphere, that it is the president who signs the appointments of new judges.

WHAT MAY also contribute to turning extreme elements against Herzog is the close attention that he pays to the Arab community.

Rivlin also paid considerable attention to the Arab community, and received a lot of flak plus accusations that he had turned his back on Likud and moved to the Left. 

But Herzog has had more reasons to be in close contact with Israel’s Arab citizens, who have done well in international soccer championships, or who have been verbally and sometimes physically assaulted on the soccer field, or have lost loved ones in the ever-escalating wave of violence pervading Arab towns and villages.

It’s not just a matter of congratulating, condemning, or commiserating. Herzog invites bereaved Arab women to come to the President’s Residence to tell their stories, and also invites Arab players individually, and together with their teams to come and meet with him.

This is probably noted in Muslim-majority countries, and may open doors for Herzog that are closed to Israeli politicians.

It was president Moshe Katsav who hosted the first presidential Iftar dinners, which have since become an annual presidential tradition. Katsav and his successors also visited Arab towns and villages, held special meetings with delegations from Arab communities, sought to bring more Arabs into the mainstream workforce, condemned racist epithets and assaults on Arab teams and individual players at soccer matches, and congratulated Arab achievers.

Like Rivlin, Herzog is also a strong defender of the rights of the LGBTQ communities, yet at the same time feels at home in any stream of Judaism, from ultra-Orthodox to Reform.

One of the major differences between him and his two immediate predecessors is that he regularly attends morning prayers in the synagogue at the President’s Residence, and continues the presidential tradition of a monthly Bible discussion with rabbis, teachers, and scholars that was introduced during Rivlin’s tenure.

Climate change is another issue that occupies his attention. In November 2022, he headed the Israel delegation to the UN Climate Change Conference in Sharm el-Sheikh.

More than any other president before him, Herzog includes his wife in most of his activities. Sonia Peres wanted her husband to retire and refused to attend his inauguration, much less join him at the President’s Residence. Nechama Rivlin was ill, and though she joined in some activities, it was difficult for her, and she died in June 2019, two years before her husband completed his tenure.

But Michal Herzog has stated more than once that she and her husband are a team. She takes on several duties of her own – and not only those which are customarily assigned to wives of dignitaries, or women in general.

She, too, has engaged in diplomacy at home and abroad, and attends most of the events held at the President’s Residence. Her husband makes a practice of referring to her in his speeches, and encourages her to contribute her perspective at official functions.

Some speculate that she is being groomed to be a contender for president in five years, and she may well be the first female president of the State of Israel.

Meanwhile, the pair is preparing for the president’s 22nd or 23rd overseas visit since taking office.

He has yet to pay a state visit to Morocco, and if Saudi Arabia and Israel establish diplomatic ties, he will in all probability be the first President of the State of Israel to set foot there.

Who knows which other Arab or Muslim-majority states will decide that it is in their interest to enter into diplomatic relations with Israel?

Based on his performance to date, it is almost a sure thing that Herzog will either visit those countries, or will be present at the opening of their embassies, should such diplomatic transformations take place during the coming five years.