Isaac Herzog’s election by MPs as Israel’s new president, set against the backdrop of coalition deliberations that could seal the end of Benjamin Netanyahu’s long grip on power as the country’s prime minister, is a neat piece of symmetry and certainly symbolic.
As Allison Kaplan Somer put it in the left-leaning Haaretz newspaper, Herzog is as close to “royalty” as Israel’s political system can conceive, part of the once-dominant Ashkenazi elite – referring to Jews who arrived from Europe – who shaped the Israeli state for decades after its founding in 1948.
The son of Irish-born Chaim Herzog, who served as president from 1983 to 1993, his grandfather Rabbi Yitzhak Halevi Herzog was the first chief rabbi of Ireland for more than a decade, before becoming chief rabbi of Palestine, and then Israel, from 1936 until 1959.
His uncle Abba Eban, perhaps the country’s most famous diplomat, was Israel’s foreign minister and ambassador to the United Nations and to the US.
The Knesset’s 120 MPs chose Herzog over Miriam Peretz, who is seen as closer to the country’s conservative and nationalist political camp, to succeed the popular Reuvin Rivlin, who comes from the same rightwing Likud party as Netanyahu but was seen as his foe. The vote will inevitably be interpreted as yet more evidence of the end of the Netanyahu era and the politics that he defined.
Netanyahu has cast the left-leaning milieu from which Herzog emerged as the enemy, in his appeal to generally more conservative Mizrahi Jews – such as Peretz – who came from places such as Morocco and have suffered widespread discrimination.
The once-powerful Labour party that Herzog, a well-heeled lawyer, had led, lost influence in the reconfiguration of Israeli politics towards the right under Netanyahu.
Herzog is unusual in the macho, often cut-throat world of Israeli politics in that he is perceived as being more softly spoken, respectful, and even bland than many of his contemporaries. Some observers have blamed this trait for his failure to achieve his first ambition of becoming prime minister.
Herzog’s political career began as Ehud Barak’s cabinet secretary between 1999 and 2000. He then ran for the Knesset on the Labour slate between 2003 and 2018, climbing the ladder with various ministerial posts until ascending to lead the party from 2013-18 – making his unsuccessful run for prime minister in 2015.
After losing the party leadership, in 2018 he was named chairman of the Jewish Agency, a high-profile body that liaises between Israel and the Jewish diaspora, in a role that helped him continue to cultivate political connections and to take the stage nationally and internationally with ceremonial flourish.
Netanyahu, who unsuccessfully opposed Rivlin’s ambitions for the same role, did not express a preference between Herzog and Peretz before the election. Some observers suggested he did not want to back the wrong horse for president, a position that holds the power to pardon criminal offences under the country’s “basic laws”.
For now, the question is whether Herzog’s election marks any sign of a change in Israel’s political weather – at least, in terms of domestic politics.
What is clear is the ambition. In his first speech following his election, Herzog said he intended “to build bridges” within Israeli society and with the Jewish diaspora and “safeguard the foundations of our democracy” – processes that Netanyahu has been accused of undermining.
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