First Woman or Zionist Royalty: Who Will Be Elected Israeli President on Wednesday

The two candidates in Israel's presidential race couldn’t be more different: While Isaac Herzog is the scion of a dynasty who’s widely perceived as lacking the common touch, Miriam Peretz is a comparative outsider who has become the nation’s unofficial cheerleader

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Israel's presidential candidates Miriam Peretz and Isaac Herzog.
Israel's presidential candidates Miriam Peretz and Isaac Herzog.Credit: Meir Alipur / Olivier Fitoussi

UPDATE: Isaac Herzog wins Israeli presidential election, defeating Miriam Peretz

Miriam Peretz and Isaac Herzog are two halves of the perfect president of Israel. The country’s top satire show, “Eretz Nehederet” (“A Wonderful Country”), hit on the idea in a parody of a debate featuring the final two candidates vying for the post.

While the actor portraying Herzog robotically rattled off his impressive qualifications, the actress playing Peretz couldn’t stop emoting about her deep affection for Israel and preaching to the country’s warring tribes to hug it out.

“You know, you two really complete each other,” the moderator noted, suggesting they run as a team

Faux Herzog leaped on the possibility. “You know what, Miriam? Together we’d make a great president!” he said, pointing out that job sharing is in vogue these days in Israeli politics, with the current (and likely next government) featuring rotating prime ministers. 

Isaac Herzog with outgoing Israeli President Reuven Rivlin last year. Credit: Mark Neiman / GPO

Unfortunately, fusing Herzog’s experienced head and Peretz’s warm maternal heart isn’t an option. Instead, on Wednesday, 120 members of the Knesset will cast their secret ballot to choose one of the two sharply contrasting candidates looking to replace outgoing President Reuven Rivlin on July 9.

Right now, it is the country’s most-neglected political battle, almost completely ignored by the Israeli public and media following the latest Gaza flare-up and the prospect of the toppling of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by a new governing coalition led by Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid.

Herzog, the front-runner in the presidential race, is as close to Israeli aristocracy as it gets. He can brag that he is already familiar with the layout of the President’s Residence as the son of Irish-born Chaim Herzog, Israel’s sixth president who served a decade-long two terms from 1983 to 1993. Before that, Herzog Sr. served as Israel’s UN representative for three years.

Isaac Herzog’s grandfather, Rabbi Yitzhak Halevi Herzog, was both the first chief rabbi of Ireland, for over a decade, and then Ashkenazi chief rabbi of British Mandatory Palestine/Israel from 1936 until 1959. After attending elite schools in the United States, thanks to his father’s UN post, Herzog, 60, served in army intelligence, went to Tel Aviv University Law School and joined the storied law firm founded by his father, Herzog, Fox & Ne’eman, before pivoting to politics with the Labor Party.

His political career began as Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s cabinet secretary between 1999 and 2000, then running for the Knesset on the Labor slate between 2003 and 2018, climbing the ladder with various ministerial posts until ascending to the Labor Party leadership from 2013-2018 – a period that climaxed with his unsuccessful run for prime minister in 2015.

After losing the party leadership, in 2018 he was named chairman of the Jewish Agency, a role that has helped him continue to cultivate political connections, allowing him to take the stage nationally and internationally with ceremonial flourish.

This has served the purpose of a long audition for the job of president, along with an effort to “warm up” his persona with plenty of photographs and videos of embracing new immigrants to Israel.  

Intelligent and articulate, Herzog suffered throughout his political career due to his lacking the haimish warmth and common touch that current president Rivlin has in spades, while his polite and soft-spoken style has been mocked as weak in Israel’s alpha-male political culture. These qualities proved to be his downfall as a retail politician, combined with the absence of a Netanyahu-esque “fire in the belly” drive to be prime minister at all costs.

Herzog is making the case that his diplomatic manner, education, experience and international sophistication are well-suited to the role of president, perhaps hoping he can follow in the footsteps of Shimon Peres, who was far more beloved as president than he was as a left-wing politician. 

On Sunday, Herzog released a video making his case, laying out his impressive résumé and sporting photos with world leaders from Boris Johnson and Angela Merkel to Joe Biden. 

Isaac Herzog with Shelly Yacimovich in 2017. Herzog apologized last week for calling his former Labor rival a "bitch." Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Last week, some scuff marks appeared on Herzog’s nice-guy image in an unlikely forum: Netanyahu’s corruption trial in Jerusalem. Under cross-examination about his relationships with various politicians, former Walla CEO Ilan Yeshua revealed that Herzog referred to former Labor rival Shelly Yacimovich as a “bitch” in text messages the two men exchanged. Herzog immediately apologized, calling his words “unnecessary” and “inappropriate.”

The incident appeared to do little damage to Herzog’s standing in the center-left camp. 

Sharp break with tradition

In a normal political environment, the left and right would each put up a candidate backed by that camp’s leading political parties, and Herzog would be facing competition from an equally credentialed figure from Likud – perhaps another second-generation scion like Benny Begin or Tzachi Hanegbi, or, alternatively, Health Minister Yuli Edelstein, who previously expressed an active interest in the job. 

But nothing is normal this year. Instead, the slot of Likud’s presidential candidate was deliberately kept empty in case Netanyahu needed a “get-out-of-jail free” card via the president’s residence.

And so, the country’s leading political party never endorsed a candidate for president, despite the fact that such a candidate would easily win a contest if the right-leaning members of the Knesset united behind that person – a fact that has been lamented in right-wing circles.

Into that vacuum stepped former teacher and school principal Miriam Peretz, who, if she entered the president’s residence, would represent a sharp break with tradition – and some believe a much-needed breath of fresh air and sign of societal change. She would become the country’s first female and first Israeli of Moroccan descent to hold the job.  

She also clearly has a Rivlin-like sense of humor, tweeting in the lead-up to the election that if the cast of “Friends” can reunite, “so can we!”

Born in Casablanca, Peretz emigrated to Israel in 1963, and was raised and educated in Be’er Sheva, southern Israel. After she married, she moved to Ofira, an Israeli settlement in Sinai that was evacuated and returned to Egypt in 1982. Peretz, her husband and children moved to the West Bank, where she lives today in the settlement of Givat Ze’ev. 

However, it was neither Peretz’s politics nor her accomplishments as an educator that have lifted her into a national figure, but rather her ability to grapple with devastating personal loss.

Her eldest son, Uriel Peretz, was killed during an army ambush in south Lebanon in 1998, and shortly afterward she lost her husband, Eliezer. Tragedy struck again just over a decade later, in 2010, when her second-oldest son, Eliraz, lost his life in a battle in the Gaza Strip.  

Miriam Peretz, right, talking with Deputy Attorney General Dina Zilber in 2015.Credit: Army Radio

Peretz turned her losses into a personal mission, becoming an inspirational speaker focusing on overcoming loss, volunteering to speak to soldiers, students and bereaved families. She became something of a national cheerleader on television, urging the country to keep the faith during dark days and delivering a message of unity and solidarity. 

In recent years, she has collected multiple honors and awards for her efforts. In 2014, she was a torch lighter at the Independence Day ceremony and in 2018 received the Israel Prize lifetime achievement award. Her much-quoted acceptance speech included a call for national unity, saying that “if we go out and seek those who are not like us, we will feel and see the happiness that fills their eyes of sorrow; and even if we have a gulf between us, we will know how to bridge it. We all want to live and we all pursue peace; this home belongs to all of us, and no political camp has exclusive ownership over patriotism.”

Over the years, Peretz has rejected multiple offers to translate her popularity into a political career: the presidency is the first time she has thrown her hat into the political ring.  

Advantage Herzog

If choosing the president was the result of a popular countrywide vote, the widely admired Peretz would doubtless be a shoo-in. But it is a Knesset vote and, as a politician trying to win over politicians, Herzog clearly has the advantage. That edge was clear from the beginning as he gathered 27 signatures from across the political spectrum in support of his candidacy, while Peretz garnered only 11 – a minimum of 10 were required. 

It is easier for Herzog to make the case to his former colleagues in the Knesset that Israel needs a president with experience, diplomatic skill and finesse to represent the country internationally, particularly at this politically fractured moment. As admired as Peretz may be, and as inspiring as her message of unity might sound, she would be a newcomer to the international stage.

Miriam Peretz receiving her Israel Prize lifetime achievement award from Naftali Bennett in 2018.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

Additionally, with the prospect of an ideologically right-wing and modern Orthodox prime minister in Naftali Bennett, the idea of Herzog as president provides balance, which a religious settler like Peretz would not.

Even more consequential is the issue of what the two candidates would do with the modicum of power the job of president holds. 

The first significant power is the ability to choose which political party will be charged with forming a government coalition after an election. Normally, this is supposed to be a challenge a president only faces once or twice in their term. However, in Rivlin’s case, it became a significant, and frustrating, part of his job as Israel lurched from election to election in recent years. 

The most important power, particularly at this political moment, is the ability to grant pardons. A major focus in the limited discussion the Israeli punditry has devoted to the race is whether either – or both – candidates would consider pardoning Netanyahu should he be convicted of the crimes for which he is standing trial. Both Peretz and Herzog have evaded answering that question directly, but neither has been willing to rule it out. 

It seems unlikely that Netanyahu has cooked up any backroom deals for a pardon, based on the fact that he has refused to endorse either candidate. After meeting with both Peretz and Herzog on Monday, he issued a statement deeming both candidates as “worthy” and reiterated that Likud lawmakers should be free to vote their conscience. 

This was surely a blow to Peretz’s camp, who had hoped Netanyahu would put the seal of approval of the country’s largest party on her candidacy – though it is possible it might have also raised suspicions regarding a pardon deal.

While there is no indication of the real reason Netanyahu has stayed silent, it seems likely that with Herzog viewed as the front-runner, he doesn’t want to be viewed as putting his money on a losing horse. 

Besides, if the prospect of a pardon does eventually come into play, the embattled current prime minister will surely want to stay on the good side of whichever presidential candidate wins Wednesday’s battle. 

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