What challenges and opportunities wait for Herzog in Washington?
By OMRI NAHMIAS
WASHINGTON – Prime Minister Naftali Bennett announced on August 6 that he was naming Michael Herzog ambassador to the US “in light of his rich, years-long experience in the security and diplomatic fields, and his deep familiarity with the strategic challenges Israel is facing, foremost the Iranian nuclear threat.”
A national security expert and veteran peace negotiator, the 69-year-old Herzog has in recent years been a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and at the Jewish People Policy Institute. He had a long IDF career including being head of strategic planning, and retired a brigadier-general.
President Isaac Herzog’s brother, Michael Herzog will take on the responsibility of building a bridge between a new Israeli government and an American administration that took power less than seven months ago.
The two sides are still in the early stages of setting the diameters for their relationship, but with new Iran talks looming and a potential crisis on the Palestinian front, Herzog will have no time to waste once he arrives in Washington.
What are the challenges and opportunities that await him?
Herzog will arrive in Washington as the Biden administration is pushing to rejoin the 2015 nuclear agreement. The US and Iran have yet to schedule a new round of talks in Vienna, and following the recent Mercer Street attack and the change of presidents in the Islamic Republic, it is not clear when such a meeting will take place.
These recent developments give Israel some time to formulate its policy. The Israeli government signaled that the new coalition, like the previous government, believes that reviving the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, as the deal is known, is a bad idea.
“Herzog will represent an Israeli government eager to work productively with the US on Iran,” says Natan Sachs, director of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institute in Washington. “His challenge will be to build on the productive atmosphere while working through the real, and deep disagreements between the two administrations. Biden’s fundamental aim remains very different from that of most Israeli policymakers, right and left, and Herzog will be a key player in working with the Americans on the day after – the day after a deal with Iran, or the day after no-deal.”
David Makovsky, director of the Koret Project on Arab-Israel Relations at the Washington Institute for Near East, said that the negotiations with Iran will have implications for US-Israel relations if the Vienna talks either fail or if they succeed.
“If the talks fail, there could be an urgent set of consultations on whether Iran is on an expedited timeline to a bomb,” said Makovsky. “If they succeed, there seems little doubt that Israel will want to discuss the prospects of upgrading its offensive capability over time. Mike [Herzog] has written a lot about these very complex issues.”
Michael Oren, former Israeli ambassador in Washington, said that Herzog is “the right man at the right time, because what the government wants is someone who can conduct quiet diplomacy on issues that are critical for
Israel’s security and long-term safety.
“On the Iranian issue, he will try to convince the administration not to renew the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. If the administration does renew the agreement, then I think it will be the ambassador’s job to secure understandings from the administration, how it can enhance Israel’s security in view of the Iranian threat. The administration has spoken about its intention to pursue a stronger and stronger nuclear agreement. I’m personally skeptical about its ability to achieve that. But Herzog’s work would be to ensure that Israel’s voice is heard very prominently in discussions surrounding that agreement.”
Michael Makovsky, president and CEO of the Jewish Institute for National Security of America, said “the primary challenge for incoming ambassador Herzog is clearly the Iran issue and Israel’s need to prepare for a major war with it. Whether some deal is worked out in the nuclear talks in Vienna or not, Tehran has made such advances in its nuclear program that Israel might relatively soon need to conduct military action, triggering a major war that will also involve Hezbollah and it’s 130,000 rockets, Hamas and other Iranian proxies.
“That means Israel needs America’s help to obtain certain weapons systems beyond what’s planned in the 10-year military assistance MOU [memorandum of understanding].”
Since taking office, the Biden administration voiced constant support for the two-state solution, but did not indicate that the conflict is a priority for the administration.
“I don’t think that the Palestinian issue is a priority,” said Oren. “I don’t think that the administration wants to get bogged down, as the [George W.] Bush administration did, as the [Barack] Obama administration and as the [Donald] Trump administration. A new peace initiative is not going to go anywhere. I think they’ve learned the lessons of the past.
“Having said that, though, the situation will push back on Israel if it undertakes large-scale efforts to what they call in Washington, ‘a change of status quo,’ like large-scale projects in Judea and Samaria or east Jerusalem.”
Oren noted that Herzog has extensive experience in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
“His job here is to represent a government that is very diverse in its opinions,” said Oren. “But I think it is unified in its insistence on Israel’s security. And I think he’ll be in a position to remind the administration in Washington that a Palestinian state that lacks coherence, lacks leadership, which is undemocratic and unstable, poses an extreme threat to Israel’s long-term security.”
According to David Makovsky, goodwill between the US administration and the Israeli government is critical, “but now the work begins. Both Washington and Jerusalem will need to operationalize the belief that you gradually can make progress on the Palestinian issue, and you are not stuck with immediate binary choices of solving or managing the conflict.
“Israel’s new tonal focus on bipartisanship on Capitol Hill ultimately will be related to how this gradualism – now called ‘shrinking the conflict’ – plays itself out. Herzog is extremely well-suited for those discussions. Same is true when it comes to deepening ties between US, Israel and existing Arab normalizers as well as broadening them to new normalizers, as well.
“It will be a good sign for US-Israel relations that he has been named for a full term, signaling he has the confidence of both Bennett and [Foreign Minister Yair] Lapid. This could only happen when the ambassador is not identified politically as a partisan.”
The US indicated several times in the past few years that it is worried about Chinese investments in Israel. As China is now seen as a top foreign policy priority for the Biden administration, Herzog’s mission would be to curb the US’ concerns.
“Chinese are rebuilding our ports, building the subway in Tel Aviv,” said Oren. “All of these are numerous projects trying to focus on things around the country, favorable trade with China. The United States tends to view many of these relationships with China as a zero-sum game. Israel has repeatedly assured the United States that it will take American concerns into consideration.”
All experts agreed that restoring bipartisan support for Israel would be one of Herzog’s most important tasks.
“Israel’s standing is far more partisan and complicated than it once was: extremely popular on the Right, and increasingly less so on the Left,” said Sachs. “Herzog will need to build on the desire among most Democrats to move on from the Bibi-Trump years, while balancing growing criticism from the progressive end of the spectrum and suspicion of a post-Bibi Israeli government among some Republicans. It’ll be a delicate balancing act that will need close attention.”
According to Oren, “his biggest challenge will be to restore to the greatest possible bipartisan support for Israel. It is extremely important. Large segments of the Democratic Party feel that they have been overlooked by Israel in recent years, that Israel has turned her back on them. That would be his major challenge on Capitol Hill, and certainly, to reach out to those parts of the Jewish community that felt alienated and disaffected in recent years.
“There are parts of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party beyond the pale,” he added. “I don’t think he’ll be reaching out to [Reps. Rashida] Tlaib or [Ilhan] Omar. But there are other progressives who have a criticism, sometimes very severe criticism of Israel but are not beyond the pale. Who still recognize Israel’s right to exist, still recognize the need to have a strong US-Israel’s strategic alliance; still support American aid to Israel – [Herzog will need] to give them a renewed sense that Israel is listening to them and Israel cares about their support and appreciates their support.”
Michael Makovsky said that “Herzog will face a Congress where the Republicans are staunchly pro-Israel, but the pro-Israel moderate Democrats seem increasingly cowed by the small but very vocal progressive group that is hostile to Israel, some of which derives from antisemitic and anti-Israel prejudice. There will be no easy solution for Herzog to pursue here.”
Originally published in The Jerusalem Post