Israeli President Isaac Herzog Israeli President Isaac Herzog  (AFP or licensors)

Isaac Herzog: 'We run the risk of peace"

Israeli President Isaac Herzog grants an interview to L'Osservatore Romano in the run-up to the 30th anniversary of the signing of the Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization.

By Roberto Cetera

“I am truly honored to be invited to give this interview for L'Osservatore Romano. The reasons are twofold; the first is the prestige and long history of your newspaper, the other because my political history has always been intertwined with the themes of religious dialogue. Moreover, so has that of my family, whose relations with the Holy See go back several decades”.  Isaac Herzog, 62 years old, lawyer, former leader of the opposition in the Knesset and president of the Jewish Agency, has been President of the State of Israel since June 2, 2021.  With this note of appreciation, he began the interview he granted us on a hot early summer afternoon in his presidential residence in Jerusalem. 

Recently, in Italy, your grandfather Rav. Chief Yitzhak HaLevi Herzog's relationship with Pius XII has been recalled.          

“My grandfather, in fact, had a truly unique relationship with the Holy See, even many years before Nostra Aetate. He was born in Poland, grew up in Paris, France, where his father had become Chief Rabbi and where he completed a doctorate at the Sorbonne. He was then appointed Rabbi in Belfast, where he became acquainted with and frequented Christian circles, and later, in 1919, became Chief Rabbi of the newly formed Republic of Ireland. In this role, he formed a very strong relationship of mutual respect and collaboration with the Archbishop of Derry, Joseph MacRory; a relationship that also continued with the Church authorities in the Holy Land when in 1936 my grandfather was appointed Chief Rabbi of Israel.  When news began to leak out about the severe persecution of Jews in Germany, he immediately passed it on to his Catholic correspondent institutions to initiate joint rescue and protection initiatives. During the years of this terrible tragedy for the Jewish people, his relationship with Pope Pius XII began.  In 1944, in Istanbul, he met, Archbishop Roncalli -then Nuncio in Turkey-  to take joint responsibility for the fate of the Hungarian Jews. They managed to save a few thousand, although it was very few compared to the 400,000 Hungarian Jews killed by the Nazis. Everyone knows the story of Roncalli who managed to stop a train deporting Jews”.


However, beyond that story, there were thousands of Jews fleeing from eastern countries, and in transit to Turkey, who were able to save themselves by reaching the Holy Land thanks to documents that had been signed by Roncalli.

“My grandfather had a genuine admiration for Archbishop Roncalli, and then to Pope John XXIII, for the immense active solidarity he expressed to the Jewish people at the most tragic time in their history. Then, at the end of the war, my grandfather travelled across Europe several times, to recover to their people those thousands of Jewish children, who had been protected and cared for by charitable Catholic hands during the Shoah, and who had lost all their families. It was on this issue that in February 1946 my grandfather met Pope Pius XII in Rome”.

Were there many children?

“Yes. There were about twelve thousand children.  At the end of that meeting, Pope Pacelli ordered monasteries, convents, schools and host families to release them.  I would like to emphasise, in confirmation of Pius XII’s resoluteness, when the State of Israel had yet come to be, and therefore the release took place via the hands of the Jewish Agency, which had set up a special commission.   You see, a few minutes ago, before you arrived, I received a family of survivors from Slovakia. A woman, who is now 88 years old, came to me with her great-grandchildren. I have a weekly schedule of meetings with survivors of the Shoah, and their families, which are then made public through Instagram. This week I have already met two of them, aged 95 and 97.  My uncle Jacob, who travelled the length and breadth of Europe with my grandfather to rescue Jews and bring them to Israel, was also a key player in the Jewish-Christian dialogue.  Uncle Jacob was, after the birth of the State of Israel, the first person in charge of the department for relations with other religions; and he created the first agreement between Israel and the Holy See. When he died in 1972, while he was director general of Prime Minister Golda Meir’s office, we received condolences and special prayers from the Vatican.  I am very sorry that my grandfather did not live long enough to see the Nostra Aetate declaration, which was a huge step in Jewish-Christian relations, and which would have made him very happy. In addition, beyond my family, as far as I am concerned personally, my political militancy has always been under the banner of inter-religious dialogue, and in particular the encounter with Christian communities. I still have a vivid memory of when, in 2000, as Cabinet Secretary, I was in charge of organizing the reception for Pope John Paul II’s extraordinary visit to the Holy Land.  It was a wonderful experience.  Then the same Pope welcomed me into the Vatican. The same was repeated in 2009 when we were visited by Pope Benedict; and also on that occasion as Minister I was in charge of organizing the reception.   Today, it is really a great wish of mine to be able to meet Pope Francis.  I spoke with him once on the phone, but I hope to meet him soon in person”.

It seems a long time since Saint Paul VI’s visit, the first Pope after Saint Peter to return to the land of Jesus.

“Yes, because in fact Pope Montini’s visit took place in a completely different geopolitical setting; the Pontiff visited the places sacred to Christians, which starting with the Holy Sepulchre were under the jurisdiction of the Kingdom of Jordan, and the Holy See at that time had yet to recognise the State of Israel. This is why Paul VI met President Sheraz in the ‘neutrality’ of Megiddo, reaffirming the essentially spiritual and pilgrimage character of his visit. However, returning to us, today in my role as President of the State of Israel I will dedicate special attention and care to the freedom of expression and the well-being of the Christian communities present here, and I have constant and intense relations with the Patriarchs of all the Christian denominations present in Jerusalem. And their growth is very close to my heart”.

A small minority after all, numbering no more than 200,000 people, but with a heavy legacy to preserve and a living presence.

"Definitely.  But a minority that is the salt of this earth. Look, I would like to tell your readers that the schools run by the Patriarchate and the Custody of the Holy Land constitute the best educational system in Israel today; they are highly respected and of the highest quality. The lives of Christians in the territories run by the Palestinian National Authority (PNA), and in Gaza, are also very close to my heart. In Israel, Christians will always enjoy our protection, and unlike in other countries in the area, they have nothing to fear".

However, there has been a worrying increase in intimidation and insults and damage to Christian clergy and churches in the country recently. 

"These are marginal phenomena at the hands of extremist fanatics that we strongly condemn.  We are in contact with your church institutions to prevent and suppress these criminal initiatives. We avoid making a fuss about these actions, because that is exactly what these fanatics want”.

President Herzog, it has been almost 10 years since Pope Francis hosted his predecessor Shimon Peres and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Rome, and together they planted an olive tree, a symbol of peace, in the Vatican Gardens, praying like common children of Abraham.  Over the years, however, that “tree” has not grown as it should.  It is watered by Pope Francis’ constant prayer for peace.   How can we make that tree grow again?

 “I consider myself a big fan of Pope Francis, and I share his concern and commitment for peace. In our land and all over the world.  I really hope to have the opportunity to meet him soon and talk to him about how we can unite our efforts for peace. Unfortunately, I must point out that the peace process with the Palestinians is currently at a standstill. For a number of objective reasons. The first obstacle, I want to say this very frankly and painfully, is the succession of acts of terrorism against our people, against defenseless civilians. Above all, we are concerned about individual acts of terrorism. Our fellow citizens are being attacked and stabbed while they are with their children in the park, or on their way home on Friday evening from Shabbat prayer. This is causing a growing feeling of anger and frustration. Terrorism is unacceptable, because it is outside even the hard rules of a conflict.  The second big problem is, in my view, the division that reigns in the Palestinian camp between Gaza and the West Bank, i.e. between the PNA and Hamas. We cannot forget that the declared end goal of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, supported by Tehran, is the destruction of the State of Israel. How can you dialogue with those who want to destroy you?  In May 2021, I myself had to descend into a shelter to protect myself from the rockets coming down on our heads from Gaza.  Unfortunately, in recent times we have also seen an increase in terror from the West Bank.  A third element holding back peace efforts is the perplexity on the Israeli side as to what may happen to the current Palestinian leadership in the future, how the transition to a new leadership group may unfold as no elections have been held for many years now. I think that in order to move beyond this stalemate, the only real prospect of peace must grow from the ground up; it cannot only be the result of political mediation.  The leaders must talk to each other again. Above all, it is necessary that initiatives for dialogue and confrontation arise from the grassroots in both camps, that each understands the pain, the suffering, of the other.

Precisely, back to politics. This interview of ours - like the one already published with the Palestinian president - is conceived in connection with the 30th anniversary of the Oslo Accords. I would like to ask you very frankly, do you believe that the “two peoples in two states” is actually still viable? Zone “C” has changed a lot in these 30 years. How can a Palestinian state be realised if there is no territorial contiguity in that area?         

“Due to the current position I hold, representing Israeli national unity, I do not consider it appropriate to enter into the merits of an ongoing debate that animates our political community, even with different positions. Nevertheless, you certainly know my political history, my cohesive action among the communities living in this land. I have constant relations of dialogue with President Abbas.  I think that the two peoples can live separately, in peace with each other, and that a solution can be found. At the end of the day, the problem he poses to me concerns 4 or 5 % of the territories concerned.  I believe that, beyond these aspects, there are a whole series of fundamental issues, affecting people’s lives, on which we can already experience fruitful cooperation. Let me give you an example: I recently asked President Abbas: ‘You and I breathe the same air, and drink the same water. You live 15 minutes drive from my house.  Why don’t we work together on the crucial issues of environment and climate?’.  His answer was a bit vague because I believe that at the moment it is not helpful within his area to show any form of collaboration with us.  However, there are already many plans on which we collaborate, for example in healthcare. For the reasons I mentioned earlier, I see it as difficult to break the political deadlock in the peace process today, but I also think that if we intensified our cooperation on these plans that affect people’s lives, we could bring people together again, and sooner or later break the deadlock”.

President Herzog, true peace requires strong partners in each other’s camps. Recently we have also witnessed in Israel the spread of the polarization that seems to have become the hallmark of our times.

“Yes, it is true. This phenomenon, which is a worldwide issue, has also effected Israel recently. However, I prefer to read it in positive terms as greater attention and participation in politics by the different communities living in our country.  Then in daily life, which concerns education, health, civil services, the interaction between communities, believe me, it is very strong. Look, just a few days ago, my assistant Dvora (attending the interview, ed) organized a meeting here in the presidential residence to present awards to civil service volunteers. To my surprise, I could see that most of the awards went to Israeli Arab citizens.  I wish one day this could also happen in the Palestinian society. The Christian Churches in this land can do a lot to foster this kind of mutual understanding and integration”.

Perhaps also because of the war in Ukraine, but one gets the impression that the topic of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has dropped off the radar of international chancelleries. 

"Definitely. And that is not good. But I think we need to broaden the field of observation to the entire Middle East. We need to look at the difficult situations in Syria and Lebanon, and the growing impetuosity of Iran in the international arena. And Gaza, Yemen and then Iraq.  I followed Pope Francis’ historic trip to Iraq, his beautiful reminder of the stars of Abraham’s progeny, those stars that are all of us today.   I wish I could visit Iraq. I fear that it could end up in Iran’s zone of influence. Nevertheless, even looking at the international context, I try to be positive. The Abraham Agreements, which involve Morocco, Sudan, Egypt, Jordan (which was the first to make peace with Israel), the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and hopefully soon Saudi Arabia, have created a broad coalition of countries, which despite their differences, strive for a permanent pacification of the whole area. The economic relations that arise from these agreements and which concern industry, new technologies, transport, tourism, health, increase our and their well-being. And I repeat: Peace is founded and develops on the well-being of people.  Peace is established when people are convinced that it is not only just but also worthwhile.  Let me also add that the pacification of this area entails the pacification of the whole world.  The implementation of the Abrahamic Accords will, I am sure, also have an effect on the Palestinians. They too will realize the viability and expediency of peace”.

Could this positive scenario you draw be afffected by the recent agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran?

"I would not be sincere if I told you that this agreement does not worry us. However, on the strategic level we are still firmly intent on continuing our steps towards Saudi Arabia. There are already frequent and good relations between our academics, entrepreneurs, scientists, and journalists with the Saudis”.

In recent months, Israel's economic situation has once again come under scrutiny by analysts and the markets. 

"Our economy remains solid and is growing. Last year, our GDP grew by 6.5 per cent. However, there are two elements to which we must pay attention. Firstly, the effects on our production capacity of the global crisis in the supply of materials for new technologies.  However, these remain one of the leading assets of our economic system; every day we receive new investment proposals in high tech, especially for A.I. The other element is internal, and concerns a certain fear that the recent controversy over judicial reform has aroused among investors. Inflation, which had risen during the Covid period, has now returned to normal thanks to the energetic interventions of the Bank of Israel”.

Speaking of the economy, the signs coming out of Gaza are increasingly desperate. Poverty and the lack of essential services are rampant. 

"Of course, as long as millions of dollars are spent on buying rockets and making tunnels. When we withdrew from Gaza, I remember I was a member of the government, we imagined, by doing so, that we were creating the conditions for the growth of a neighboring, democratic, economically advanced entity.  Perhaps we were naive, but we imagined Gaza to be like a Hong Kong of the Mediterranean. What happened instead afterwards is unfortunately there for all to see, due to the actions of Hamas and Islamic Jihad since 2006.  The first to pay the price were the Palestinians loyal to the PNA, with hundreds murdered.  But - and this comforts us - there is no connection between the two systems of government”.

And Lebanon?

"It is another situation that worries us. Not so much for us, but for the poor Lebanese people who have not ceased to suffer for decades now. The economic and living conditions are disastrous. Only two hours a day of electricity in homes. There is also a shortage of medicines. And on top of all this the now dominant presence of Hezbollah, another emanation of Iran.  To protect ourselves from its attacks, we certainly have no intention of entering those areas, but they should know that we will be able to defend ourselves very effectively and very hard. It is high time that people in those parts also started to think that peace is the only possible and convenient option”.

Mr President, the peace that lasts is the one that is based on compromise, where each side is prepared to give up something.  What is Israel prepared to give up at the table in a negotiation with the Palestinians?

“You ask me for an answer that is actually the government's prerogative and not mine. However, I can tell you that a good peace agreement is nourished not only by realism but also by creativity and inventiveness.  I would like to talk to Pope Francis about this. I hope soon. Give him the greetings of his ‘biggest fan' in Israel”.

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01 July 2023, 15:36