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Israeli politician Isaac Herzog on singing DUP's praises in NI and why a blue plaque to his late father should be returned to his former Belfast home

The Ulster History Circle memorial to the former President of Israel was removed after being vandalised. 'You wouldn't take the name of George Best away,' he tells Ivan Little, 'so you don't have to take the name of Chaim Herzog away'

Jewish Agency chairman Isaac Herzog
Jewish Agency chairman Isaac Herzog
Isaac Herzog meeting DUP leader Arlene Foster on his visit to Belfast
Chaim Herzog
Isaac Herzog chats to journalist Ivan Little
The house in Cliftonpark Avenue where his father, former Israel President Chaim Herzog, was born in 1918. A blue plaque commemorating his dad’s birth was removed after attacks on the property
Isaac Herzog at the International Wall in west Belfast

One of Israel's most influential public figures has paid tribute to the DUP during his first visit to Belfast to see the birthplace of his father Chaim Herzog, who was the President of his country in the 1980s.

Isaac Herzog, a former leader of the opposition Labour Party and an ex-minister in coalition governments in Jerusalem, expressed his disappointment that Sinn Fein hadn't met him, especially as he said he had "hosted" Gerry Adams in Israel in the past.

During a series of engagements to mark the centenary of the birth of his father, Mr Herzog, who is now chairman of the powerful Jewish Agency, also called for the reinstatement of a blue plaque at the former Herzog home in Cliftonpark Avenue, which was removed from a wall after repeated attacks by anti-Israeli elements.

Mr Herzog said he and his family had been "deeply offended" by what happened to the Ulster History Circle tribute, which was taken down "out of concern for people in the area" after graffiti was daubed on the building and objects thrown before an attempt was made to wrench the plaque off the wall with a crowbar.

Mr Herzog's trip, which came on the same day that students at Queen's University protested during a visit by Israel's ambassador to the UK Mark Regev, wasn't announced in advance.

Mr Herzog and his family were shadowed by PSNI officers throughout their time in Belfast, where Israeli flags are regularly flown in loyalist areas while Palestinian flags are common sights in republican areas, underlining the divisions in Northern Ireland over the situation in the Middle East.

Prominent pro-Palestinian activist John Hurson voiced his anger online about the Herzog visit.

He said that while the demonstration, which was supported by Sinn Fein and People Before Profit, was being staged at Queen's, the Herzog delegation was being entertained at Stormont and took time for photos in west Belfast "without a whimper of protest".

Others on social media pointed out that Mr Adams had met former Israeli ambassador Ron Prossor in Belfast almost 10 years ago.

Last month Sinn Fein took part in a protest over the visit by the Israeli international football team for a friendly game at Windsor Park.

The demonstration was held at the International Wall on the Falls Road, which was one of Mr Herzog's stops on his tour of west Belfast and he was pictured beside a mural calling for a boycott of his country.

Mr Herzog said it pained him to see the tensions in the Middle East mirrored in Belfast.

"I'm very sorry about that," he added.

"I think there's a misconception about Israel in general among a lot of people in Northern Ireland and in the rest of the island."

Speaking about the removal of the blue plaque in Cliftonpark Avenue, Mr Herzog said: "We were very offended by this. I think that people within communities who have respect for themselves should not have permitted it.

"The plaque was put there by the historical society under legal authority to tell people that my father, Chaim Herzog, was born in this place."

He said he was calling on civic leaders in Belfast to support the re-erection of the plaque on the house, because it was marking "a piece of history".

He added: "You would not take the name of George Best, or Kenneth Branagh, away, so you don't have to take the name of Chaim Herzog away."

During visits to Stormont, DUP leader Arlene Foster and a number of MLAs, including Jim Allister, met Mr Herzog and his family and later on there was a formal reception in the Great Hall.

The DUP said it welcomed Mr Herzog to Stormont and hoped links between Israel and Northern Ireland would be strengthened.

Speaking to me before his round of meetings started, Mr Herzog applauded the DUP.

He said: "They understand the way that Israel functions amid a very complicated region with a lot of terror and a lot of hate. I say sincerely, as an important leader in Israel, that we extend the hand of peace but time and time again we face the harsh reality of terror."

Asked about Sinn Fein, Mr Herzog said: "I can tell you, as leader of the opposition and as a minister in the government, that I hosted Gerry Adams when he came to study the issue of Gaza.

"And I can tell you also that I had fascinating talks with him."

However, in 2015 Mr Adams said that Israel prevented him from making a planned visit to Gaza and didn't give him a reason.

Mr Herzog accompanied Israel's current President, Reuven Rivlin, to the Dail in Dublin in 2012 and he said Mr Adams' speech was the most impressive he heard.

But Mr Herzog said some of Sinn Fein's recent comments have been distorted, adding: "I would call on Sinn Fein and other politicians to come and test the facts on the ground. Some of what Sinn Fein said was obnoxious and horrendous, but I would say to them come to Israel and study our democracy, our legal system, our free Press."

Attitudes towards Israel have hardened even more after it was accused of unleashing horrific and unprovoked violence in May against Palestinian protesters, including children who were shot dead by troops.

"Our hearts are broken for every Palestinian who is hurt," said Mr Herzog, who added that "unpleasant events" had taken place and that Israel had made mistakes "like any other nation".

But he went on: "We have a very impressive rule of law, we have a very strong adjudication system and we have a very robust democracy that challenges and answers and replies.

"We have Muslim brotherhoods represented in our parliament. Show me another parliament in the world officially recognising such a party, but that is the greatness of our democracy.

"Yet people don't know it and they keep on blaming us for the problem with the Palestinians.

"However, the truth is that this conflict is extremely complicated and there is a need for a will on both parts and especially by the leaders to make bold efforts and change reality."

Mr Herzog said he had written to Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn to tell him how disturbing he'd found "the anti-Semitic undertones emanating from his party".

He added: "I invited him to the Holocaust Memorial Museum in the Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, but I never got an answer."

The visit to Belfast by Mr Herzog marked the start of a series of events here, in Dublin and in London to celebrate the centenary of the birth of his father on September 17, 1918. Chaim Herzog became Israel's sixth President in 1983 - a position he held for 10 years.

The future President's father Isaac was Rabbi of the then-thriving Belfast Jewish community, but he moved to Dublin when his son was still a baby.

Isaac Herzog, who was named after his grandfather, said his uncle Abba Eden was also living in Belfast in 1918, having arrived in the city as a child evacuee during the First World War when his home was in Kinnaird Street off the Antrim Road. He went on to become Israel's Foreign Minister.

Chaim Herzog returned to Northern Ireland during the Second World War, serving as an intelligence officer in the British Army stationed in Lisburn and he later took part in the liberation of Europe. Mr Herzog said his family had "fond" connections to Belfast.

"He may have moved to Dublin as a child, but Belfast was embedded in his being and in his personality.

"My father talked in his memoir about the battles between Protestants and Catholics and how they influenced his life as President, because he said we should always prevent civil war, or conflict, within a nation."

Mr Herzog's Rabbi grandfather was seen as a prominent figure in the history of Irish independence. He was a fluent Irish speaker, who was a friend of Eamon de Valera and he was dubbed by some as the "Sinn Fein Rabbi".

It's also said that he was asked during a riot if he was a Protestant or a Catholic Jew.

Mr Herzog says: "I remember my father following the news from Northern Ireland avidly - often with great anguish during times of conflict.

"My father felt moves towards the peace process in Northern Ireland held some hope for our own situation in the Middle East, where he passionately advocated compromise and co-existence between Jews and Arabs."

The former President's son said people in Israel were "envious" of the progress made towards peace here.

"After the Good Friday Agreement, we could only yearn to get to a Good Friday Agreement," he says.

"One sees how difficult it is to make peace, to bring nations and human beings to take bold steps towards changing reality."

Of the current deadlock at Stormont, Mr Herzog says: "I would urge the political leaders to find an amicable solution, to keep on going together, because they have had a unique achievement in putting terrorism behind and giving the people a brighter future.

"This is what we want to give to our Palestinian neighbours as well."

Recently Mr Herzog stepped down as leader of the opposition in the Israeli parliament.

He is now chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, the largest Jewish non-profit organisation in the world, whose mission statement is to "inspire Jews to connect with their people, heritage and land and to empower them to build a thriving Jewish future and a strong Israel".

Mr Herzog started his four-year term as chairman of the agency two months ago. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose policies had been criticised in the past by Mr Herzog, tried to block his appointment, but his candidate was rejected by an appointments committee.

Belfast Telegraph

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