Amb. Mike Herzog uses his peace negotiating skills to break D.C.’s partisan divide

The scion of Israel’s most famous political dynasty sat down with Jewish Insider to talk about his priorities — and unexpected challenges he’s faced — as ambassador to the U.S.

Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Herzog has held a lot of important jobs over the years — soldier, diplomat, negotiator — but rabbi is not one of them. Still, as an emissary of the Jewish state, he won’t let the High Holidays pass without at least offering some words of Torah. (His grandfather, after all, was the chief rabbi of both Ireland and Israel.) 

“Rosh Hashanah is a chag, a festival where you do some soul-searching, and you think about how to correct and improve your relations with one another and with God almighty,” Herzog said, noting that he wanted to tie these themes to “the current geopolitical situation.” 

“Even though Israel is a thriving nation and very successful,” Herzog continued, “we are ever challenged, and we cannot sit on our laurels. I think Rosh Hashanah is a good time to reflect on that and think where we can do better.”

Since arriving in the U.S. last November, the taciturn Herzog’s assignment has been relatively straightforward: bring back a sense of normalcy to U.S.-Israel relations, which grew frayed among Democrats and Likud leaders during a tumultuous few years in both Washington and Jerusalem. 

Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Herzog

When it comes to appearances, President Joe Biden’s administration and the Israeli ruling coalition seem eager to cooperate.

“I know that from time to time you hear voices asking questions about our relations. But I say it with conviction, our relations with the administration and with the American people are strong and solid,” Herzog told Jewish Insider in an hour-long interview at the Israeli Embassy. “It’s no secret that there are differences between us on some issues. But we speak openly about everything. We know exactly where we stand. We know what we agree on. We know what we disagree on. And to the extent that we disagree on certain issues, we know how to manage our disagreements.”

Herzog and his wife, Shirin, accompanied the president and First Lady Jill Biden on their trip to Israel in July (Biden’s first as president), which Herzog called a “remarkable visit.” There have been no fireworks in Herzog’s tenure, except for when Shirin comes out and sings at parties. Instead, Herzog has overseen a quiet mending of ties with skeptical congressional Democrats, even those who are often critical of Israeli actions.

“I hear from some Democrats, saying that there was no real dialogue between them and the State of Israel in the past few years, and they would welcome such dialogue,” Herzog said. “I’m not saying it to pass criticism on anybody or accuse anybody. I’m reflecting a certain reality that I encounter here.”

He has witnessed an “erosion in bipartisan support for Israel,” in recent years, some of which is a result of “developments here in the U.S. which have nothing to do with us.” 

He counters the divisions with skills he learned in decades of Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. “As a negotiator, you have to listen to the other party. You have to understand the psychology, what’s really important to them,” he said. That doesn’t mean he buys into all of their concerns. 

“Some people, not in the administration, but in public opinion here, relate to [the Israeli-Palestinian conflict] in the context of intersectionality, as if lumping together all the so-called ‘oppressed,’” Herzog noted. “I explain to people that this is a totally wrong analogy. There’s no analogy whatsoever. We’re talking about a national conflict between two national movements with historical claims and aspirations to the same piece of land.”

On Capitol Hill, Herzog’s policy is to meet with almost everyone. “I will not speak to [Rep.] Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), because I know that she doesn’t want to speak to me, and she has no interest in whatever I have to say,” he said, “and I will not speak to antisemites, people like that. But save for that, everybody else I will speak to, no matter if they agree with me or disagree with me.” Tlaib recently came under sharp criticism from within her own party after saying last week that supporting Israel and being a progressive are incompatible. 

Herzog, a retired brigadier general in the Israel Defense Forces, has been a constant figure in Arab-Israeli peace negotiations going back nearly three decades. He served in Israel’s Ministry of Defense under four different defense ministers. This posting is not his first stint in Washington — he lived in the nation’s capital from 2004 to 2006 as a visiting fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. 

“I will say that I was surprised somewhat by the depth of political polarization here in this country. Not that we do not have political polarization back in Israel. We do,” said Herzog, pointing out that Israel will have its fifth election in three years this November, which may leave him out of a job. “But still, when you encounter it face-to-face, and I see it all the time on the Hill and elsewhere … so while I was cognizant of this, when you see it on the ground, it was somewhat surprising to me.”

Herzog said he talks to a lot of people who are either “misinformed” or “informed by some myth” when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 

“I try to explain, I’ve been in the room for well over 20 years of negotiations,” he said. “What I try to impress on my counterparts and people who talk to me about is that, first and foremost, this is not a black-and-white situation where you have one party 100% right and just and the other party just totally wrong.”

“As a negotiator, you have to listen to the other party. You have to understand the psychology, what’s really important to them,” he said.

In recent months, Herzog has faced sustained pressure from some congressional Democrats over Israel’s handling of the investigation into the death of Shireen Abu Akleh, a Palestinian-American journalist who was killed in the West Bank in May. Earlier this month, an official investigation from the IDF determined that Abu Akleh was likely killed unintentionally by Israeli forces. 

“Our government expressed sorrow for the outcome of this incident,” said Herzog, adding, “we have to understand the context in which this occurred.” 

Biden administration officials have continued to seek accountability for the incident, particularly after several prominent news publications such as CNN and The New York Times published analyses concluding that IDF soldiers were behind Abu Akleh’s death. “Since she was killed, the administration called on Israel for accountability. We carried out a very, very thorough IDF investigation, which took several months, because we added more and more layers,” said Herzog. “I think we addressed all elements of accountability, which were raised by the administration.”

“Let’s not forget,” Herzog added, “that we are sending our soldiers to risk their lives in the fight on terror. So to the extent that we do not find any violation on their part, we will back them, because we need them to continue to fight terrorism.” Israel’s investigation concluded that the killing was unintentional, and the IDF’s top legal authority decided against prosecuting any soldiers for their role in the incident. 

“We got a lot of questions from people on the Hill and also from the administration,” Herzog acknowledged. Some of the loudest critics, Herzog argued, were simply parroting Palestinian Authority talking points that began before any forensic investigation into Abu Akleh’s death had taken place. “They from day one said Israel deliberately assassinated her. Based on what? It’s just a campaign, a political campaign against the State of Israel, and some people here in the U.S. acted on that campaign,” said Herzog. “To those who are not motivated by any anti-Israel political motivation, we are ready to answer any question they may have.”

But Herzog’s biggest focus in Washington is not the Israeli-Palestinian issue that he’s worked on for much of his career. It’s Iran.

“When I arrived here last November, I was told by my counterparts in the administration that [the Iran nuclear deal] will be decided by the end of year, talking about 2021. Then they say, maybe January, maybe first quarter of 2022. We are now in September,” said Herzog. “It’s not clear whether there will be a deal, and how exactly it will be decided, because since nobody wants to issue a death certificate to a diplomatic effort, this drags on and on in this kind of in-between twilight zone.”

Herzog offered familiar Israeli criticisms of the Biden administration’s diplomatic efforts. “Israel is not against diplomacy or a diplomatic outcome. We agree with the administration that Iran should be denied the nuclear weapon or the ability to become a nuclear-armed state, and that diplomacy is the preferred method to go about it. The issue we had was with what kind of deal was — is — on the table,” Herzog said, offering a list of priorities that might lead Israel to accept a deal: inspections from the International Atomic Energy Agency, further limits on enriched uranium, stricter sanctions. 

President Joe Biden shakes hands with Michael Herzog, the Israeli Ambassador to the United States after menorah lighting ceremony in celebration of Hanukkah in the East Room of the White House on December 01, 2021, in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

Instead, Herzog argued, the focus must be on deterrence. “Diplomacy offers Iran incentives, but I think you have to focus on the disincentives,” he said. 

Given Herzog’s negotiating background, what “disincentives” would he use to bring Iran to the table? “Economic pressures, political pressures and other types of pressures on Iran, including a last-resort credible military option,” he listed — essentially, the strategy for which Israel has been advocating for years, and a phrase reminiscent of former President Donald Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign. “We think that with more pressure on Iran, and with a better mix of incentives and disincentives, you can get a better deal,” said Herzog. 

“I received Jewish religious education, so I’m also — what I carry with me also, I’m always mindful of Jewish history, Jewish destiny and what it means to be the representative of the old-new nation-state of the Jewish people,” Herzog said.

In press releases, readouts and official talking points, Biden administration officials frequently note how closely the Israelis are consulted in the course of nuclear negotiations, but the airing of grievances does not appear to have affected Washington’s stance toward the negotiations. 

“I can’t say that I managed to convince [them of] everything on all issues. But on some issues, I think what we said resonated,” said Herzog. For instance, he noted, Biden insisted that the U.S. not remove the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps from the State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations, despite Iran’s requests. “I think our voice resonated for the simple reason that this is a very simple case,” he added.

As an emissary of the Jewish state, Herzog feels an obligation to build ties with the American Jewish community. Everywhere he travels in the U.S., he meets with members of the local Jewish community. “I meet all of them in one room. I don’t meet separately with the Orthodox and Reform,” said Herzog. “I speak to everybody, but I think we have to do more work with the young generation. We need many more delegations in Israel to show them the realities on the ground.” He attributed the “distancing that exists among the young generation” to “ignorance” and to the influence of “anti-Israel voices.” 

Herzog also comes to Washington as an emissary of one of Israel’s best-known families, brother of President Isaac Herzog, and son of the country’s sixth president, Chaim Herzog.

“Part of our education was to go to public service,” said Herzog. Still, he admitted, a part of him regrets not trying his luck as a writer. “I once worked as a research assistant to a very famous novelist, and I always told myself, one day I should do so,” Herzog recalled. 

That novelist was Leon Uris, whose 1958 novel Exodus “shaped the awareness of a whole generation,” said Herzog. “It was essentially the story of the revival of the Jewish nation.” The book sold millions of copies and became a top-grossing movie starring Paul Newman. 

Herzog met Uris after the success of Exodus, and worked with him to research a follow-up novel, Haj, that told the story of Israel’s founding from an Arab perspective. “It was not as successful as Exodus, and not as impactful. But working with him instilled in me the desire to be a novelist one day,” Herzog reflected. His literary heroes are about what one would expect for a 70-year-old Ashkenazi diplomat steeped in tales of Israel’s early decades: Amos Oz, David Grossman, Shai Agnon, the poet Yehuda Amichai.

“I received Jewish religious education, so I’m also — what I carry with me also, I’m always mindful of Jewish history, Jewish destiny and what it means to be the representative of the old-new nation-state of the Jewish people,” Herzog said. “I never take Israel for granted. That’s what my father taught me.”

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