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.
Jane Eisner, a pioneer in journalism, is writer-at-large at the Forward and the 2019 Koeppel Fellow in Journalism at Wesleyan University. For more than a decade, she was editor-in-chief of the Forward, the first woman to hold the position at the influential Jewish national news organization. Under her leadership, the Forward’s digital readership grew significantly, and won numerous regional and national awards for its original journalism, in print and online.