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

Dateline Jerusalem

By Gershom Gorenberg

Published February 02, 2007, issue of February 02, 2007.
  • Print
  • Share Share

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.






Find us on Facebook!
  • "I am wrapping up the summer with a beach vacation with my non-Jewish in-laws. They’re good people and real leftists who try to live the values they preach. This was a quality I admired, until the latest war in Gaza. Now they are adamant that American Jews need to take more responsibility for the deaths in Gaza. They are educated people who understand the political complexity, but I don’t think they get the emotional complexity of being an American Jew who is capable of criticizing Israel but still feels a deep connection to it. How can I get this across to them?"
  • “'I made a new friend,' my son told his grandfather later that day. 'I don’t know her name, but she was very nice. We met on the bus.' Welcome to Israel."
  • A Jewish female sword swallower. It's as cool as it sounds (and looks)!
  • Why did David Menachem Gordon join the IDF? In his own words: "The Israel Defense Forces is an army that fights for her nation’s survival and the absence of its warriors equals destruction from numerous regional foes. America is not quite under the threat of total annihilation… Simply put, I felt I was needed more in Israel than in the United States."
  • Leonard Fein's most enduring legacy may be his rejection of dualism: the idea that Jews must choose between assertiveness and compassion, between tribalism and universalism. Steven M. Cohen remembers a great Jewish progressive:
  • BREAKING: Missing lone soldier David Menachem Gordon has been found dead in central Israel. The Ohio native was 21 years old.
  • “They think they can slap on an Amish hat and a long black robe, and they’ve created a Hasid." What do you think of Hollywood's portrayal of Hasidic Jews?
  • “I’ve been doing this since I was a teenager. I didn’t think I would have to do it when I was 90.” Hedy Epstein fled Nazi Germany in 1933 on a Kinderstransport.
  • "A few decades ago, it would have been easy to add Jews to that list of disempowered victims. I could throw in Leo Frank, the victim of mob justice; or otherwise privileged Jewish men denied entrance to elite universities. These days, however, we have to search a lot harder." Are you worried about what's going in on #Ferguson?
  • Will you accept the challenge?
  • In the six years since Dothan launched its relocation program, 8 families have made the jump — but will they stay? We went there to find out:
  • "Jewish Israelis and West Bank Palestinians are witnessing — and living — two very different wars." Naomi Zeveloff's first on-the-ground dispatch from Israel:
  • This deserves a whistle: Lauren Bacall's stylish wardrobe is getting its own museum exhibit at Fashion Institute of Technology.
  • How do you make people laugh when they're fighting on the front lines or ducking bombs?
  • "Hamas and others have dredged up passages form the Quran that demonize Jews horribly. Some imams rail about international Jewish conspiracies. But they’d have a much smaller audience for their ravings if Israel could find a way to lower the flames in the conflict." Do you agree with J.J. Goldberg?
  • 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.