In July 1984, when the newly elected members of the 11th Knesset arrived at the president’s residence in Jerusalem for coalition consultations, one lawmaker was not welcome. Then-President Chaim Herzog defied parliamentary tradition and refused to invite Meir Kahane, the sole representative of the Jewish-supremacist Kach party. An enraged Kahane arrived at the residence gates and was informed by security guards that he would not be allowed in. It was Herzog’s personal gesture of revulsion at Kahane’s strident racism.
Fast-forward 37 years and Herzog’s son, Isaac, is campaigning to be Israel’s next president. Despite being widely tipped as the front-runner, Herzog Jr. leaves nothing to chance and meets with each of the 120 Knesset members (the presidential electors), leaving no one out. Unlike his father who ostracized Kahane, Isaac Herzog has no qualms in meeting with Kahane’s heir, Itamar Ben-Gvir of the neo-Kahanist Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) party.
It didn’t help. Ben-Gvir voted for the other candidate, Miriam Peretz, but Herzog didn’t need his vote anyway, winning the election by an unprecedented margin. But his courting of Ben-Gvir made it clear that, unlike his father, he had no red lines.
So, Herzog’s decision to light the first candle of Hanukkah on Sunday night with the settlers of Hebron, Ben-Gvir’s core constituency, should come as no surprise to anyone. These were the kind of people he courted before being elected president and he’s not about to shun them now, or anytime.
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Herzog followed his father into the Labor Party. But unlike him, he’s been trying to blur his own political identity for a while now. As leader of the center-left party, he tried to hide the name, preferring instead to use the “Zionist Union” label for the alliance of parties that ran together in the 2015 election. After failing to win enough seats to establish a governing coalition, largely due to a toxic smear campaign orchestrated by Benjamin Netanyahu, who accused him of being a defeatist leftist who planned to appoint Arab Israelis to senior posts in his cabinet, Herzog doubled down on his own personal journey away from the left.
For over a year, he secretly negotiated with Netanyahu to join a national unity government. When that failed and Herzog lost the Labor leadership to Avi Gabbay, he set his sights on becoming the next Jewish Agency chairman. He was elected unanimously to that position in June 2018, becoming the first Agency head to be elected without the prime minister’s official endorsement.
At the time, this was seen by many as a snub by the American-Jewish representatives on the Agency’s board to Netanyahu. But in retrospect, it seems that Netanyahu didn’t try that hard to prevent Herzog’s appointment.
In his three years as chairman, Herzog sang from the right-wing hymn sheet when he referred to intermarriage among American Jews as a “plague” and did nothing to push forward the egalitarian prayer space agreement at the Western Wall that had been brokered by his predecessor, Natan Sharansky. To do so would have enraged the ultra-Orthodox parties, and Herzog was banking on them to vote for him as president. Which they did.
Since becoming president in June, Herzog has maintained an extremely cordial relationship with Netanyahu, hosting him regularly at his residence and acting as a buffer between him and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett at state events. He has refused to deny persistent rumors that he may pardon Netanyahu, perhaps even before a verdict is reached in his corruption case.
In light of this, Herzog’s appearance in Hebron – where he approvingly quoted the spiritual father of the religious settler movement, Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook – really should come as no surprise. In fairness, his father visited West Bank settlements while serving as president as well, and was a bit too liberal in giving out pardons to both settlers and Shin Bet security service agents who had been involved in murdering Palestinians.
But Herzog Sr. at least drew the line at Kahane. And once his presidency was over, he left the political stage. His son, though, is harboring other plans.
Just as Herzog Jr. took the job as Jewish Agency chairman so it would serve as a springboard to the presidency, he is planning to use his new perch to prepare him for his next job. That is the prism through which all his actions as president should be judged.
When his seven-year term as president ends in 2028, Herzog will be a sprightly 67 and still very much an active politician. It will be too early for him to retire and write his bland memoirs. He still has one more job in his sights.
Herzog is positioning himself as the consensual, responsible grown-up in what in 2028 will be a polarized post-Netanyahu political climate, where younger leaders like Bennett and Yair Lapid have failed to impress as prime ministers. He is already building a base for a new party he will found, and he wants it to extend as broadly as possible. Courting the fundamentalist settlers and ultra-Orthodox parties makes sense as the left is weaker politically and will ultimately, if begrudgingly, support anyone who is not Netanyahu or a wanna-Bibi.
The visit to Hebron is not an afterthought or a symbolic gesture of “unity.” This was the very first Hanukkah-lighting of Herzog’s presidency, and his choice of venue signals how he intends to build his political brand throughout his term and beyond.