President Herzog’s hot-mic moment - opinion

Even if Herzog was unaware that the audio was running when he conveyed his message of concern, his appeal to Shas was not the least bit accidental.

 The Otzma Yehudit faction, led by MK Itamar Ben-Gvir (center), is seen walking into the President's Residence for a meeting with Israeli President Isaac Herzog, in Jerusalem, on November 10, 2022. (photo credit: OREN BEN HAKOON)
The Otzma Yehudit faction, led by MK Itamar Ben-Gvir (center), is seen walking into the President's Residence for a meeting with Israeli President Isaac Herzog, in Jerusalem, on November 10, 2022.
(photo credit: OREN BEN HAKOON)

During the course of the coalition consultations that kicked off on Wednesday, President Isaac Herzog had a hot-mic moment that has been causing pundits to wonder whether the “faux pas” wasn’t actually intentional. 

At the end of his meeting with representatives of the ultra-Orthodox Sephardi Shas party, when the video of the televised broadcast was paused yet the audio remained on, he was heard saying: “There’s one issue I didn’t talk about, because I don’t want to shame anyone. You’re going to have a problem with the Temple Mount. That’s a critical issue.”

“There’s one issue I didn’t talk about, because I don’t want to shame anyone. You’re going to have a problem with the Temple Mount. That’s a critical issue.”

Israeli President Isaac Herzog

He was referring, as his office later confirmed, to the controversial stance of Otzma Yehudit MK Itamar Ben-Gvir, No. 2 on the Religious Zionist Party list, which – like Shas – is slated to occupy a prominent place in the next government. 

But Ben-Gvir “has become more moderate,” one of the Shas members mumbled. Nevertheless, Herzog continued, “You have a partner that the entire world is anxious about. I told him that, too. Between us, this isn’t for publication. I don’t want to cause trouble. But I think you have a responsibility.”

The journalists gathered outside the conference room at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem couldn’t help laughing when the words “not for publication” reverberated loudly through the sound system set up for their benefit. They were possibly amused, as well, by Herzog’s choice of audience for his admonition about Ben-Gvir, the success of whose “right-wing-religious extremism” at the ballot box has turned the firebrand activist lawmaker into an international household name.

Otzma Yehudit leader Itamar Ben-Gvir prior to his entry into politics can be seen speaking Israeli attorney Itamar Ben Gvir speaks during a ceremony marking the 27th anniversary of the death of Rabbi Meir Kahane, November 7, 2017 (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)Otzma Yehudit leader Itamar Ben-Gvir prior to his entry into politics can be seen speaking Israeli attorney Itamar Ben Gvir speaks during a ceremony marking the 27th anniversary of the death of Rabbi Meir Kahane, November 7, 2017 (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

After all, Shas is considered by the chattering classes to be no less of a “threat to democracy” than the rest of the factions in the bloc headed by Likud chairman Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu, Israel’s former and upcoming prime minister. What some outsiders might not grasp about the nuance of internal Israeli disputes, however, is that while the likes of Ben-Gvir have been fighting for the right of Jews (not solely Arabs, as the status quo dictates) to pray on the Temple Mount, Shas rabbis are among those who vehemently oppose the move on religious grounds.

So, even if Herzog was unaware that the audio was running when he conveyed his message of concern, his appeal to Shas was not the least bit accidental. Nor was his sudden lack of neutrality – the quality that his position requires – a slip-up.

Herzog's lack of neutrality was no slip-up

Unlike his immediate predecessor, Reuven Rivlin – who didn’t hesitate to ignore his ostensibly above-the-fray role and regularly volunteer his unsolicited, increasingly sanctimonious, left-leaning opinions – Herzog has been fulfilling his duties with surprising aplomb and grace, both at home and on official trips abroad. 

But the advent of Netanyahu’s “full, full, right-wing government-in-the-making” is clearly causing the one-time Labor Party leader no small amount of cognitive dissonance. Each failed attempt at rallying the so-called “center” around Netanyahu seems to have deepened his furrowed brow. 

HERZOG IS in a bind, not merely having to accept the slam-dunk victory of the Bibi camp that Ben-Gvir was instrumental in bolstering, but to oversee and welcome its formation in a magnanimous fashion. It’s one thing to uphold evenhandedness in the face of the outgoing coalition, comprised of ideologically disparate parties, among them his own. It’s quite another to manage the feat under the current circumstances.

Unwittingly or otherwise, signaling solidarity with the “entire world worried” may have alleviated his predicament somewhat. Though this isn’t the kind of non-alignment that he’s charged with projecting, it could be just the right trick to reassure his friends in Washington and Brussels that he’s not to blame for the Ben-Gvir phenomenon – and is doing everything he can to prevent an “escalation of tensions” on the Temple Mount, home of al-Aqsa mosque. 

Ben-Gvir’s response was as swift as it was respectful.  

“President Herzog and I have had many fruitful conversations in recent weeks,” he stated. “On more than one occasion, he has pointed out that my views and plans succeeded in swaying hundreds of thousands of Israelis, and that he’s confident that if I speak to the world, it will realize that I don’t [lump] all Arabs [in the same negative category].”

Ben-Gvir averred that as a result of these conversations, he has begun “meeting with diplomats, and will work to explain the positions of Otzma Yehudit to the entire world.”

Judging by his op-ed on Monday in Israel Hayom, he meant it. The headline, “My brethren on the Left, give me a chance,” indicated that he is on a mission to change his image. This alone should provide Herzog with a modicum of relief.

“Despite our differences, despite four rounds of elections that have led to a polarized public discourse and an accentuation of our divisions, despite the demonization, despite everything, we are brothers,” he began. “No, the country hasn’t come to an end. You and we together, we are the country, and we have no intention of changing that.” 

He continued: “I hear the fear of ‘religious coercion,’ but I ask myself, whom will I coerce? My brother who doesn’t wear a kippah, or [the] ‘secular’ candidates I brought into my Knesset list? I hear the fear of a ‘thought police’ or prohibition of demonstrations, and remind you that we are the ones who have fought more than all the ‘civil rights’ organizations for freedom of expression and the right to protest!”

“I hear the fear of ‘religious coercion,’ but I ask myself, whom will I coerce? My brother who doesn’t wear a kippah, or [the] ‘secular’ candidates I brought into my Knesset list? I hear the fear of a ‘thought police’ or prohibition of demonstrations, and remind you that we are the ones who have fought more than all the ‘civil rights’ organizations for freedom of expression and the right to protest!”

Itamar Ben-Gvir

Addressing accusations of his aversion to the LGBT community, he wrote: “What saddens me the most is to hear journalists ask whether if, when I take up a position of influence [perhaps as public security minister], the Pride Parade will still receive police protection. Are you insane? Would I like to see the loathsome murder of a girl [16-year-old Shira Banky, who was stabbed to death in 2015 while] attending the parade? Of course not, and even if I don’t like the parade, I will still ensure that all the marchers are kept safe.”

He proceeded to vow that he has “matured, moderated and come to the understanding that life is complex,” claiming to make a distinction between Arabs and leftists who are anti-Zionists and those who are not.

He went on: “Our Jewish identity is not sectorial nor political; it is the rock of our being and our very essence. In the Diaspora, we suffered persecution and we united, yet here in our own country that we have built, our Jewish heart beats fainter. Reconnecting to it cannot be done through coercion – doing so is doomed to failure – but we must become reacquainted; we must refresh our memories, and bring ourselves closer to our heritage.”

To those citizens who are frustrated by and harbor hatred for his party, he insisted: “If you let us get closer, if you listen to what we have to say, you will discover that we agree on 90% of the issues, and that the message we bring and the things we will do are for you just as much as they are for us.”

Indeed, he declared, “The ax that is raised against a mother in Haifa, or the knife that is drawn against a young man in Ashkelon, don’t have electoral considerations. The same goes for our national security, which we so desperately need: It is not there to defend a particular sector or political affiliation. We all need personal security – in the kibbutzim of the Left, in the towns of the periphery, on Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv, and in Sderot and Beersheba. 

“Israel’s Arab citizens are also entitled to protection and a feeling of security. The truth must be stated, even if it is painful: the complacency that the State of Israel shows toward murder and crime in the Arab sector is immoral, unacceptable and harms us all.”

It would appear, then, that Herzog’s highly cited “off the record” apprehension was premature, if not utterly unwarranted. Ditto for the hyperbole shouted from the rooftops by Ben-Gvir’s detractors who warn of imminent disaster.