Israeli president Isaac Herzog on how the conflict with Hamas may evolve

‘This is a battle which has to do with the moral conscience of the world. The entire world should be with us’

(Tom Jellett)
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President Isaac “Bougie” Herzog is Israeli aristocracy. His father, Chaim Herzog, was the sixth president, serving between 1983 and 1993; his grandfather Yitzhak Herzog was chief rabbi; his maternal uncle was Abba Eban, the most famous of the country’s foreign ministers. After leading the Israeli Labor Party and the parliamentary opposition in the Knesset between 2013 and 2017, Isaac became Israel’s eleventh president in July 2021. He is the first to be born in Israel since the Declaration of Independence seventy-five years ago.

My first question rather asks itself: how is the war going? “Depends on…

President Isaac “Bougie” Herzog is Israeli aristocracy. His father, Chaim Herzog, was the sixth president, serving between 1983 and 1993; his grandfather Yitzhak Herzog was chief rabbi; his maternal uncle was Abba Eban, the most famous of the country’s foreign ministers. After leading the Israeli Labor Party and the parliamentary opposition in the Knesset between 2013 and 2017, Isaac became Israel’s eleventh president in July 2021. He is the first to be born in Israel since the Declaration of Independence seventy-five years ago.

My first question rather asks itself: how is the war going? “Depends on what you mean by war,” Herzog quickly replies, before turning the discussion away from Gaza to “the grand picture.” He believes worries about whether the battle against Hamas might morph into a larger regional conflict are already out of date. “It’s regional already,” he says. “Unfortunately, it is regional because elements that emanate constantly from Tehran and its proxies are carrying out this war, whether it’s attacks from Lebanon, from Iraq, from Syria and, of course, from Gaza, which was the original perpetrator of this heinous atrocity.” He points to the recent Houthis’ piracy in capturing the Galaxy Leader, an Israeli-owned ship in the southern Red Sea, as merely the latest manifestation of the phenomenon.

‘This empire of evil… calls for the annihilation of the Jews, and the Christians in Europe will be next’

Continuing in this vein, I ask about the disturbing claim that a Hamas terrorist had been found with instructions on how to launch chemical warfare in southern Israel. “Yes, [it is] true, including how to create a cyanide-deploying device and how to use it,” he says. “Way beyond the horrible atrocities that we have seen; atrocities that humanity hasn’t seen in generations.”

Herzog, sixty-three, who was a lawyer before his political career, believes that everybody should watch the footage that Hamas terrorists filmed themselves of the October 7 attack. “It is simply inconceivable,” he says. “For all of us who believe in the family of nations, and the rules of liberty, and the dignity of human beings, seeing the Gazan people, not only from Hamas, [but] Gazan civilians, celebrate in the middle of Gaza’s streets over a body — a mutilated body of a young girl who simply went to a dance festival with her friends — is horrifically shocking.”

I ask why he thinks some Ivy League universities — including his alma mater, Cornell in New York — and so many liberal western elites have turned away from supporting Israel to embrace the Palestinian cause? There is even a director of a Canadian women’s group who has denied Israeli women were raped by Hamas terrorists. What is it about western civilisation today that means people can’t accept the things we have seen?

“Because they are afraid to look in the mirror which has shattered before their eyes,” he replies. “Unfortunately, I find rust: rust in the establishment, and rust in the temples of learning that we all admired and adored. They grew sclerotic in the way they looked at things, rather than judging the truth as it is, meaning there are cruel people in this world and sometimes it is very difficult to make peace with a culture that glorifies such attacks which have been going on for years.”

“And there are those who still do not understand that there is something called a war between good and evil. It somewhat reminds me of the way the approach was [in the 1930s] until Winston Churchill took over and explained the reality to the British people and the rest of the world. It takes time. It’s difficult. People don’t like to change their views so quickly, but we have to understand this is the culture we’re faced with.”

“There are evil forces who believe in jihad, which means none of us are eligible to live in this world because there will be another empire, an empire of evil which wants the infidels out. This is the real story. You can see it when they behead a teacher in France, or kill people on the Underground in Britain, or when they carry out 9/11, or when they chop the heads off babies in Israel.”

Emmanuel Macron with Isaac Herzog in Jerusalem, October 24, 2023 (Getty)

So why, I ask, does he think Emmanuel Macron has refused to join a recent pro-Israel march in Paris? And why are there large weekly anti-Israel marches in London? Has there been a process of Islamization going on in Europe? His response is instant: “I don’t say that it’s a war between Islam, and Christianity, and Judaism for that matter. On the contrary, I believe that when you have a dialogue, an interfaith dialogue, you see there are many common denominators between the three monotheistic religions. What we are seeing is a streak of extreme Islam that is the main challenger to the world order, which has to be met with force.”

He has no doubt about the origin of the poisonous situation. “It starts in Tehran with the entire culture of the return of the Mahdi [a prophesized messianic figure who will appear to lead the world’s Muslims at the End of Time] and the whole idea of the ayatollahs who consider us as the Small Satan and America the Big Satan, and who promote an entire jihadist culture.”

The reason he refers to an “empire of evil” is because “no matter if they’re Sunni or Shia, this culture calls for the annihilation of the Jews from this region, and the Christians in Europe will be next.”

Should the United States, Britain and our allies therefore impose what are called “snapback” sanctions on Iran, considering that Tehran pays for around 90 percent of Hamas’s military budget and also supports Hezbollah and the Houthis?

“This is a major topic to be discussed between the permanent members of the Security Council and Germany,” Herzog says, “because the Iranians are taking everyone for a ride. I think snapback is a very important tool to explain to the world community and to the Iranians that there are red lines that must not be crossed. Don’t forget, parallel to that, there is the Iranian rush for a nuclear weapon, something which the world’s leadership has undertaken not to allow.”

Herzog is full of praise for King Charles whom he met at COP28. “We had an open and frank conversation about the challenges of the day,” he says. They also spoke about the coronation ceremony, which included, he points out, “quotes from the Psalms and elements from our national history, which is intertwined in biblical history, and King David and his legacy. So we had a lot to talk [about]… I’m always honored by the opportunity to talk with him.”

There are some world leaders, however, who Herzog does not believe are treating Israel fairly. “Take Canada, for example, a very close friend of Israel,” he says, with palpable irritation in his voice about the posturing and lecturing that his country has been receiving from Justin Trudeau. “In Canada there is a growing rise in antisemitism, and terrible antisemitic attacks that are threatening Jews all over Canada. Recently, there have been terrible attacks in Toronto. Rather than [Canada] paying attention to that, we were criticized by Prime Minister Trudeau in a very unpleasant way.”

“Why am I saying this? Because I expect our friends to be honest about the facts on the ground. If we have the right to defend ourselves — and that is what Prime Minister Trudeau told me personally — that means we have to go into the places from where these missiles are launched, from where this horror machine is operated, and simply uproot it, after alerting the civilians. Which we are doing by millions of leaflets, phone calls, text messages and the like.”

Imbalanced criticisms of Israel in the West, he says, go beyond politicians and into the wider culture. “There are many in Hollywood who expressed their horror and dismay [at the October 7 attacks], but there are others like Susan Sarandon who didn’t even express any sorrow or pain, and people who started speaking about proportional response, not about understanding the situation.” Indeed, Sarandon went further, saying that American Jews “are getting a taste of how it feels to be Muslim in this country,” leading her to be dropped by her talent agency.

Herzog is on the center-left of Israeli politics, yet his response when I ask a question about Hezbollah is as unequivocal as anything Benjamin Netanyahu has said about the Israeli response to rockets being fired across the northern border from Lebanon. Hezbollah, he states, are part of the “axis of evil” and so “of course they are met by a forceful response by Israel.”

“We are not eager to go to war with Lebanon,” he says. “Lebanon will pay a heavy price if we go to an all-out war — a very heavy price. But we are trying to show restraint. I would leave it at that because I don’t want to lead the situation to a deterioration, but something is clear: if Hezbollah wants to go to war, they will meet a very strong Israeli military.”

Israeli forces on the border with Gaza in southern Israel, November 5, 2023 (Getty)

What would Herzog like to see happen to the territory once the Israel Defense Forces destroys Hamas as a military force? “I think that there will have to be a very detailed mechanism of ‘managing the store,’” he replies, “which provides full security for Israel and the citizens on the border, so they won’t go through this hell again, and [which also] enables the development of Gaza into a fully fledged democracy, as part of the development of the Palestinian nation. That requires a lot of innovation, and, most importantly, responsibility by many, many players in the region and in the world.”

As head of state, Herzog has met President Recep Erdogan of Turkey, King Abdullah II of Jordan and many other Muslim leaders. Relations with them are obviously in the deep freeze at present, but he still believes that the trajectory of Israel’s future is towards the kind of regional inclusion and normalization that were presaged by the Abraham Accords, which Saudi Arabia seemed close to embracing before October 7. “All regional leaders understand there are two alternatives,” he says. “Either caving into evil as we have seen it, or moving towards peace by eradicating evil.” In the future he hopes Israel can be part of a “regional partnership, which will be a Nato-like structure, and which will enable a future of interdependence and mutual security for all.”

“The test for this war is much greater than a simple Israel-Hamas war. It’s a war for the stability of the Middle East, for the stability of many of our neighbors. The rhetoric does not always reflect the inherent interests of the parties concerned.”

Where does the West Bank stand in any such future long-term regional partnership? How worried is he about a third Intifada happening? Jewish settlers there seem presently to be acting virtually with impunity; does that make it more difficult for Israel to get to this regional partnership?

“I think there’s a lot of distortion of the facts,” Herzog replies, with a slight note of exasperation. “The situation in the West Bank is being monitored. We were operating daily to undermine terror cells and terror operations to secure stability.”

“I expect the Palestinian Authority to take their hundreds of millions of shekels that were transferred to them, and use it for the wellbeing of their own people. And I assume the Palestinian people would expect that such funds will go into the budget of the Palestinian Authority to help give them services and manage the West Bank in the areas under their control and, of course, security and the like.”

‘We expected the BBC to be much more cautious and to understand that the IDF does not lie’

Herzog insists that the accusation of uncontrolled and unpunished settler violence in the West Bank is not true. “The Israeli government has clamped down on violence. A lot of the stories about many, many casualties were found to be totally incorrect,” he says. “There was one case of an unfortunate casualty which has been thoroughly investigated. Israel has even taken steps, extreme steps, such as administrative detentions against a few settlers, to prevent any further escalation. These steps are undermining the due process of law to secure the wellbeing of all the population in the West Bank.”

“So there’s a lot of distortion and PR which does not reflect the situation on the ground. I’ve asked any world leader who has presented me with this claim to show me which issues they are talking about. And I must tell you, I’ve personally checked stories and complaints, and those that are proven to be right are under full investigation.”

One news organization that has provoked consternation over its Gaza coverage is the BBC, with Jeremy Bowen failing to accept that Hamas routinely uses hospitals for military cover and the news agency refusing to describe Hamas as “terrorists,” though they have been proscribed as such across Europe.

“I presented a complaint in the British media a month ago,” Herzog tells me. “Since then, I have given a few interviews with the BBC. We had our ups and downs; we expected the BBC, following the last apology where they acknowledged running a manipulative report, to be much more cautious and to understand that the IDF does not lie — we adhere to strict rules of transparency and honesty in reporting. And please, I ask everybody to remember, we are a very honest, open and transparent democracy, aggressive and vibrant. Even now, amidst this war, there are debates in Israel, one has to respect that and give us some credit for that.”

It was Herzog’s father, the great soldier, author, politician and diplomat Chaim (he also wrote one of the best books published on Middle Eastern conflict, the 1982 classic The Arab-Israeli Wars), who physically ripped up the notorious “Zionism is Racism” UN Resolution 3379 in the General Assembly in 1975. So I ask his son whether he believes anti-Zionism is the new antisemitism?

“In many ways, yes,” he says. “You ask yourself, why do people hate Israel? For years they’ve been brainwashed as if we are the villains. Israel went towards peace only to be rejected by terror and suicide bombings. Israel has given up land — we pulled out of every inch of Gaza in 2005, and since then we’ve had tens of thousands of missiles because our neighbors in some places do not want to accept our inherent right to exist as the nation state of the Jewish people.”

“Israel’s non-Jewish minorities are united with us. Many Muslim Israeli citizens were also butchered and tortured, abducted and killed by Hamas. They showed no mercy for anybody — Jew, Muslim or Christian. Anyone. Once someone is Israeli, they kill them. That is why this is a battle which has to do with the moral conscience of the world. The entire world should be with us.”

This article was originally published in The Spectator’s UK magazine. Subscribe to the World edition here.