Replacing @PresidentofIsrael


Stepping Down: Shimon Peres’s seven years as Israeli president conclude in July. He’ll be almost 91.
Getty Images
Stepping Down: Shimon Peres’s seven years as Israeli president conclude in July. He’ll be almost 91.

By Jane Eisner

Published February 25, 2014, issue of February 28, 2014.
  • Print
  • Share Share

The journalist Gershom Gorenberg says that in Israel the office of president is much like the Queen of England. Only much cheaper. In many ways, he’s right. The Israeli presidency is not an inherited position, of course, and it has none of the aristocratic presumptions built into the House of Windsor; the official president’s house in one of Jerusalem’s tiny neighborhoods hardly compares with the Queen’s castles and palaces and such.

But strip away the dynastic pomp and circumstance, and the analogy fits. Both positions are largely ceremonial, supposedly apolitical, meant to rally the populace, support the national mythology, and represent the best face to the world. After all, Israel, without a constitution of its own, is governed by Basic Law fashioned after England’s parliamentary system. The prime minister is the one with executive power. The president (or queen) is meant to be above it all.

To maintain this remove from ordinary politics, the Israeli president serves a seven-year term, and cannot be reelected. Shimon Peres’s seven years conclude in July. He’ll be almost 91.

It is fair to say that he exceeded expectations — especially considering the fact that, at his age, he maintains a vibrant public presence at home and overseas, in person and on social media. (The Twitter handle @PresidentPeres has over 35,500 followers; his Facebook page has more than a quarter of a million “likes.”) The challenge now is how to replace him, and with whom.

The how is straightforward, though unpopular. Sometime in the next few months, the Knesset will vote by secret ballot. A simple majority of 61 votes is required. This opaque procedure gives rise to all sorts of backroom dealing among the candidates and his or her supporters, or at least the perception thereof.

Perhaps that is why in a survey conducted for the newspaper Israel Hayom released on February 14, 72% of Hebrew-speaking Jewish Israelis said they favor changing the system to hold direct presidential elections. (Why only Hebrew-speaking Jewish Israelis were polled, we cannot say.) Only 20% said they liked the current system; the remaining 8% had no opinion.

But since the Knesset members who get to vote for president would be the ones to have to give up their power for a direct popular election, we’re guessing it’s not going to happen soon. So the Israelis are stuck with the system they have, and the candidates it engenders.

This year, unusually, several non-politicians have announced their ambitions, including Nobel laureate Professor Dan Shechtman, retired Supreme Court justice Dalia Dorner, and possibly, Adina Bar Shalom, daughter of the late former chief rabbi Ovadia Yosef, who recently told the Forward that she was seriously considering throwing her hat (or wig?) into the ring.

The American-born solar power entrepreneur Yosef Abramowitz, aka “Captain Sunshine,” is hinting at a long-shot candidacy, telling Israeli TV: “If the Knesset decides that they don’t want the brand equity of the presidency to be an aging politician, but instead to be Israeli innovation to change the world, inspiring the next generation, and bringing massive investment to the Israeli economy, they know who to call.”

A lot of politicians are in the race, too, including former Knesset speaker Reuven Rivlin of Likud and Binyamin Ben-Eliezer of Labor. A lot of former politicians are rumored to be interested, including Natan Sharansky, now the head of the Jewish Agency for Israel, a man who, it seems, is far less popular at home than abroad.

It is from the ranks of politicians that Israel has selected most, though not all, of its presidents — an inevitable, but not necessarily desired outcome. Peres came from those ranks as well, but he was able to elevate the office into something much more substantial and salutary. Arguably, there was nowhere to go but up in 2007, when he took over just as his predecessor, Moshe Katsav, was being investigated on several charges of rape, sexual harassment and obstruction of justice; he is now serving a seven-year prison term.

But Peres’s own checkered political reputation at home — he suffered numerous defeats as head of the Labor Party — was more than offset by his stature abroad. Winner of the Nobel Peace Prize and America’s Presidential Medal of Freedom, Peres commanded respect and grudging affection from enough world leaders to fill a star-studded stage at his 90th birthday bash last June in Jerusalem. Despite the neutrality of the office, Peres continues to speak his mind, emphasizing a desire for a peace agreement with the Palestinians and constantly reaffirming Israel’s support of the Obama administration, when plenty of government officials say otherwise. He’s the kinder, gentler face of the Israeli administration, and Lord knows, that’s been needed lately.

It is not for us to say whom Israelis, either lawmakers or average citizens, should choose for their president. But we can express what kind of leader we hope will be elected, can’t we?

As the relationship between Israel and the Diaspora matures, the next president could be a crucial interlocutor, providing an emotional ballast and constancy and a finely tuned ear when times get rocky and interests diverge, as they are bound to do. The president can also be a needed ambassador-at-large to those nations doubtful of Israel’s legitimacy and course of action in its turbulent geopolitical neighborhood.

Most of all, the president should represent an inclusive future, something that Peres, in his tenth decade, has done surprisingly well. Some Israelis scoff that his oft-quoted desire not to talk about the past is motivated by his adeptness at rewriting certain portions of it. But no matter. He embraces the future with an admirable and enviable vigor, reminding us that Israel is still a very young and noble experiment in statehood.

He’s burnished the reputation of his office so well that more than half the respondents in the Israel Hayom poll, nearly 54%, wanted his term extended. We can only hope that his successor, whoever he or she is, will be able to leave office seven years from now with a public wishing for more and a world Jewry grateful for the effort.

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight":
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.