Israel's new president, Isaac Herzog, could well become a key figure for the Israeli public over the next few years. His diplomatic experience and skills will contribute to that, as will the political circumstances and the crisis of governance that Israel has been facing.
The meager diplomatic experience of the new prime minister, Naftali Bennett, combined with the low probability that it will be possible to advance a peace process in the next few years, could leverage the standing of the experienced president and make him a popular figure among world leaders. At the same time, Herzog’s decision to begin the day of his swearing-in at the central institutions of the world Zionist movement sends a signal regarding his intention to become “the president of the Jewish people,” and a prominent figure in Israel’s relations with the Jewish Diaspora.
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The goals Herzog has set for himself as president are high. During his term as president, Shimon Peres became the “alternative foreign minister,” and Reuven Rivlin wanted to serve as the “people’s president.” Herzog intends to be both.
Those close to him have said he will be a “social worker” and will act to heal the wounds in Israeli society, while at the same time being “alternative chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel,” who will pursue a close relationship with Diaspora Jewry and world leaders.
After four election campaigns in less than two years, and with the coalition liable to collapse at any given time, Herzog has a big advantage: He has seven secure years ahead of him. His term is expected to be an island of stability in a volatile public arena. This has major implications: Traditionally, the president tries to remain politically neutral and avoids favoring one side or another. But in light of the long-lasting political crisis and because the present government represents a very wide range of views, Herzog can allow himself to roll up his sleeves and take controversial initiatives in an attempt to prevent the fall of the government.
Herzog could well become – whether openly or otherwise – a figure who serves as a bridge among the members of the polarized coalition government, and act in an attempt to spare Israel another round of elections. He can help foster compromise between Bennett and Yair Lapid, between Ayelet Shaked and Nitzan Horowitz, between Mansour Abbas and Avigdor Lieberman.
Under certain circumstances, he can even promote the entry of the ultra-Orthodox parties into the government, out of a desire to give them a place at the cabinet table, too. Like his predecessor, Reuven Rivlin, who proposed the parity model of government and pushed Netanyahu and Benny Gantz to form a unity government, Herzog, the 11th president, can build the scaffolding that will aid in stabilizing any government that arises during his term.
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Herzog is an experienced political operator, too. He has often called himself the “alchemist” because of his ability to create political connections that would have seemed impossible. That's how he was elected president last month, with the support of Likud and other political opponents from the right-wing parties. That's how he paved his way to the leadership of the Jewish Agency in July 2018, in the face of opposition from Benjamin Netanyahu. That was also how he managed to recruit Tzipi Livni to the joint leadership of the Zionist Union in 2014, and became a candidate with a real chance of becoming prime minister. Joining up with Livni gave his party – which until then was going nowhere in the polls – an impressive showing, with 24 Knesset seats. Herzog’s three successors as head of the Labor Party – Avi Gabbay, Amir Peretz and Merav Michaeli – were unable to come anywhere close to that number.
But Herzog’s potential to become a powerful president could be shattered over his public image: gray, weak and lacking in charisma. Will he be able to rid himself of those traits, which made his term as leader of the opposition in 2015 such a failure?
“Herzog is too calculating. He lacks political courage. He doesn't sweep away people in his speeches and his presence has never aroused too much enthusiasm,” said someone who worked closely with him when he led the opposition. He preferred to conduct negotiations on entering a coalition with Netanyahu over an uncompromising battle against it. Even his supporters became sick and tired of his leadership, and his party quickly faded in the polls. In the end, Herzog was thrown out in an internal party primary and a short time later left the Knesset, too.
In any case, there seems to be one political hot potato that could frame his term in office from a historical perspective: a decision on granting Netanyahu a pardon – which could very well land on his desk someday, if and when the former prime minister is convicted of the serious charges for which he has been indicted.