(photo credit: AP)
"If we were to prepare an ideal profile of a presidential candidate," said Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Monday, "the life of Shimon Peres would conform exactly."
One doesn't have to be a fan of Peres to fully agree with this statement. Peres's CV is unparalleled, encompassing six and a half decades of public service and some achievements that are so crucial to Israel's wellbeing they can't even be written about openly in an Israeli newspaper.
Only one question remains: If Peres is so eminently suitable, why is he not the president already?
Indeed now that his candidacy has finally, officially, been announced, Peres has achieved yet another "first." He is the first Israeli to run twice for the presidency.
Peres was just as suitable for the job seven years ago - perhaps even more so - but suitability has nothing to do with actually being elected. That's down to 120 MKs, and in the privacy of the voting booth they can indulge any personal sentiment, political calculation and prejudice they harbor towards the candidates.
Suitability played no part in Peres's defeat by Moshe Katsav seven years ago. It was a combination of personal and political forces. (And contrary to accepted belief, it wasn't Shas that did him in. Some Shas Mks did vote for him; a number of Labor and other left-wing MKs betrayed him.)
Come to think of it, suitability has nothing to do with being a worthy president. Katsav might not have been in Peres's league but he was still thought of as a good president. Until the allegations of sexual scandal began surfacing almost a year ago, many credited him with doing an admirable job, restoring respectability to the presidency after the years of Ezer Weizman - another ostensibly suitable candidate who proved such a disappointment.
None of this goes to say that if Peres does win election this time, he won't be a credible president, only that the office of president has been so downgraded that it is in danger of fading into irrelevancy.
Peres's rivals are also suitable. The Likud's Reuven Rivlin has made a fascinating transition from the court jester of Israeli politics to a popular symbol of unity and decency; Labor's Collette Avital, as a diplomat and politician, always cut an impressive figure and is the first woman running for the job.
But ultimately, the presidential race will have nothing to do with any of this. It will be a wrestling match between a beleaguered prime minister, an ambitious opposition leader and a new Labor chairman anxious to prove himself. Peres, Rivlin and Avital are pawns in the game that will dominate the political arena until the next general elections: Which of the three large parties will manage to reinvent itself, capturing the middle-ground where elections are won?
The presidency is merely the first round, its results good for morale, but scarcely anything else. In 2000, prime minister Ehud Barak emerged the loser when he failed to secure the position for Peres. Ariel Sharon, in engineering Katsav's victory, took another step toward the political respectability that subsequently enabled him to become prime minister. Barak would have fallen and Sharon would have won anyway. But the symbolism was not lost then, and it means just as much to the leaders this time around.