In Twist, Peres Must Break Own ‘Law’ To Win Presidency

Dateline Jerusalem

By Gershom Gorenberg

Published February 02, 2007, issue of February 02, 2007.
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Poor Shimon Peres. If only Israel’s presidents were chosen by foreign diplomats or Diaspora Jews, he’d stand a strong chance of winning. To Peres’s misfortune, the Knesset elects the president by secret ballot. It is a law of nature in Israel that Shimon Peres loses elections. A corollary to that law says Peres runs the next time anyway. Death and taxes are less certain.

From a distance, Peres seems perfect for the presidency. In the Israeli republic, the president fills a role parallel to constitutional monarch: the symbolic, powerless head of state. The prime minister governs. The president speaks at public occasions about the flag and fallen soldiers, while avoiding partisan political comments. He issues pardons — but only on the Justice Ministry’s say-so — and assigns the leader of the party that has won an election to form the next government.

The position was originally crafted for Chaim Weizmann in deference to his role in the Zionist movement and to founding prime minister David Ben-Gurion’s desire to deny Weizmann any actual power. Even the symbolic stature of the post has shrunk dramatically, however, under the incumbent, Moshe Katsav. He was elected in 2000 after a colorless career as a Likud politician. Now there’s color: Last month, Attorney General Menachem Mazuz announced that he intends to indict Katsav for rape, though he’ll first hold a hearing to let the president’s lawyers contest the decision. Katsav suspended himself from office last week and said he’d quit if indicted. The Knesset may dismiss him first. Clearly, what’s needed is an elder statesman to restore respect. At a distance, that’s how Peres appears.

Distance, though, obscures details. Like this one: Katsav was elected in the first place only because he ran against Peres. Peres’s shocked expression after that vote — mouth agape, jowls drooping — could have made a statue weep for pity. A majority of Knesset members had promised to vote for him. Some lied.

Now Peres is preparing to run again, as the candidate of the ruling Kadima party. To prevent another double-cross, Peres and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert want to amend the electoral law to have the Knesset elect the president by an open, roll-call vote. A Cabinet subcommittee approved the “Peres Bill” on Sunday. But coalition partners Labor and Shas plan to vote against it. Even the coalition whip, Kadima’s Avigdor Yitzhaki, reportedly opposes the change.

The details of Peres’s career help explain why he is so prominent and so unpopular. Half a century ago, as the precocious director general of the Defense Ministry, he gained a reputation for big ideas and backhanded ways of achieving them. Peres developed Israel’s arms industry. He also cultivated France as a source of weapons and technology — nurturing a key foreign alliance virtually as a rogue operation, and earning the enmity of then-foreign minister Golda Meir.

A bright technocrat, Peres became Moshe Dayan’s protégé. In 1974, after Dayan was disgraced by the Yom Kippur War, then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin made Peres defense minister out of fear of the Dayan camp. In those days, Peres was one of the most hawkish figures in Labor. His ministry channeled aid to West Bank settlements that the religious Gush Emunim movement established in defiance of Rabin’s policy. In a 1979 memoir, Rabin said that Peres was “a tireless schemer.” The title stuck.

By then, a minor scandal had forced Rabin to step aside. Peres ran as Labor’s candidate for prime minister in the 1977 election. He lost, the first of many electoral defeats. Losing has never kept him from running again, like Charlie Brown charging at yet another football.

Again, history provides clues to his behavior. Peres began his career in Mapai, Labor’s forerunner, when it was Israel’s undisputed ruling party. When the Mapai machine picked candidates, they won. Peres learned how to move up in the party through back-room intrigue. But by the 1970s, the Labor machine broke down. Now candidates had to appeal to the public. Peres never acquired that skill. Instead, he stuck to deal making.

In 1990, for instance, Peres was number two to then-prime minister Yitzhak Shamir in a national unity government. He hatched a scheme to remove Shamir through a Knesset no-confidence vote and become prime minister himself with the help of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party. In the middle of what Rabin labeled the “stinking maneuver,” Shas backed out. Peres and Labor ended up in the opposition.

Here lies a curious piece of Peres’s personality: As ready as he has been to plot behind others’ backs, he maintains a strangely naive confidence that others will keep their deals with him. Arguably, this was one of the fatal flaws in the Oslo process — another big idea that began as a back-channel negotiation, and depended on Yasser Arafat keeping his word.

Now, at 83, after an eon in politics, after finally bolting Labor for Kadima, Peres wants to cap his career with a term as president. Olmert’s support is evidence of the prime minister’s poor political judgment, if more evidence is needed. If Peres loses yet again — to the Likud’s Ruby Rivlin, or to Labor’s Colette Avital, or to the waiter in the Knesset dining room — it will show how little control Olmert has over his own coalition.

If, on the other hand, Peres wins, there is little chance he will stick to the president’s symbolic role. As head of state, greeting diplomats, meeting world leaders, he will succumb to the temptation of rogue diplomacy, of pursuing the deal that will bring peace and personal glory while undercutting the prime minister.

Peres win? With the Jews, admittedly, even laws of nature occasionally get broken. Once upon a time, the Red Sea was split. A Peres victory is only slightly less probable.

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