Herzog Aims for Calm After Israel’s Move to the Right

As president, he tries to allay fears and cautions against expressing judgment until a government emerges from Israel’s very complex election process.

AP/Patrick Semansky
Israel's president, Isaac Herzog, and President Biden during a meeting at the Oval Office October 26, 2022. AP/Patrick Semansky

For now, President Biden and other world leaders are being careful about publicly expressing criticism of the far-right Israeli government likely emerging from Tuesday’s vote. Will President Herzog be able to push back against fears about the direction of the country?

Under the Israeli system, the president, while officially head of state, has no policy-making role. His involvement in politics ends after weighing election results and deciding which party leader is best positioned to head the next government.

Yet, some Israeli presidents have played diplomatic roles in the past, and have even undermined elected governments. In contrast, Mr. Herzog is best positioned to bridge a widely predicted rift between the new Israeli government and world leaders. 

The current and likely soon to be former prime minister, Yair Lapid, today canceled his participation in next week’s international gathering at Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt, where heads of state will go for a climate conference known as COP27. Saying he would be too busy to attend, Mr Lapid’s office announced that Mr. Herzog will represent Israel instead. 

Mr. Biden is expected to go, for at least one day, to the Egyptian beach resort that is close enough to Tel Aviv for fun-loving Israelis to hop over for a couple hours of scuba diving. Yet, the American president is unlikely to include in his trip a short flight to Jerusalem to congratulate the likely next prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. 

At the margins of the clime-fest, the gathering dignitaries are bound to moan about the absence of Mr. Lapid, who is much more attuned to the proverbial “international community” than anyone in the incoming government. Whispers about Mr. Netanyahu’s far-right, and in some cases racist, partners will likely dominate such conversations. 

Mr. Biden has often boasted of his long relationship with Mr. Netanyahu, even though it was fraught with misunderstandings and outright hostilities. What is likely to make matters even worse is that Mr. Netanyahu’s projected ruling coalition includes politicians considered toxic in Washington, such as the leader of the third-largest party emerging out of yesterday’s vote, Itamar Ben Gvir.

Anticipating the outcome, Mr. Herzog flew to Washington last week, where he met Mr. Biden at the White House and spoke with top administration officials. According to Israeli press reports, Secretary Blinken and the national security adviser, Jacob Sullivan, expressed to the Israeli president their “anxiety” about the possibility of Mr. Ben Gvir’s participation in Mr. Netanyahu’s government.  

Mr. Herzog tried to allay fears and cautioned against expressing judgment until a government emerges from Israel’s very complex election process. Indeed, Washington was mum today about last night’s exit polls beyond commenting on the highest Israeli voter turnout since 1999. No meaningful statement is expected at least until tomorrow, when the official vote results are issued in Israel. 

“I am pleased to see such strong voter turnout for the Knesset election,” the American ambassador at Jerusalem tweeted today. “It is too early to speculate on the exact composition of the next governing coalition until all the votes are counted. I look forward to continuing to work with the Israeli government on our shared interests and values.”

The American ambassador at the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, similarly declined to comment in a CNN interview, saying only that she would continue to fight against “unfair treatment of Israel in the United Nations.” 

In other words, Mr. Herzog’s request that Washington not to jump to conclusions was heeded — for now. A Democratic-led administration already preconditioned to have fraught relations with the rightist Mr. Netanayahu will likely be even more on edge with a government that includes Mr. Ben Gvir and orthodox politicians.

How would Jerusalem deal with the predicted rift? In a democracy, people you might not approve of do get elected, a former Israeli ambassador at Washington, Michael Oren, says.

“There are people elected in the U.S., on both parties, who are antisemitic. That’s part of democracy,” Mr. Oren, the author of a new fiction book, “Swann’s War,” told the Sun. A former center-right Israeli politician, Mr. Oren says that Mr. Herzog, a stalwart of the leftist Labor party, is well-suited to express such messages.

“I’ve worked with presidents since Ezer Weitzman, who used to attack Prime Minister Rabin from the left,” he says. Mr. Herzog, in contrast, “doesn’t meddle and doesn’t position himself in opposition to the Israeli government.” Around the world, he adds, Mr. Herzog is “widely respected and considered a centrist. That’s very useful diplomatically.”

Another asset the president has in maintaining good relations with Washington is that at least for now his brother, Michael Herzog, serves as the Israeli ambassador to America. Their grandfather, Yitzhak HaLevi Herzog, was the chief rabbi of Ireland. His son, Haim Herzog, was born at Belfast and grew up in Dublin before emigrating to Israel, where he eventually became president.

One of Haim Herzog’s most memorable moments was when, as Israel’s ambassador to the UN in 1975, he stood at the General Assembly’s podium and tore up the resolution equating Zionism with racism. 

Now a new president, Haim Herzog’s son, may be well positioned to respond to international pressure to ignore Israeli voters’ wishes, as were expressed in a democratic vote. To advance the country’s diplomatic goals, Mr. Netanyahu would do well to make use of the president’s talents. 

The New York Sun

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