As the race to succeed Shimon Peres as Israel’s next president begins to pick up speed, it’s worth pausing for just one moment to reflect on what a truly impressive president Peres has proved to be. Obviously, in comparison to his predecessor, the incarcerated rapist Moshe Katsav, anyone would have been an improvement, but Peres’ presidential performance ranks him as one of the better inhabitants of the presidential residence.
First off, one has to acknowledge that the role of president is a thankless one.
As the country’s first president Chaim Weizmann used to bitterly complain, the only place a president could stick his nose was his handkerchief. For political leaders and men of great achievement such as Weizmann, a key figure in the pre-state Zionist movement and an outstanding scientist, and Peres, becoming a ceremonial figurehead wheeled out whenever the occasion demands can turn into a form of living death.
Indeed, given Peres’ reputation as an “indefatigable schemer,” to quote the late Yitzhak Rabin, many were initially concerned that Peres would turn the president’s office into a rival version of the prime minister’s bureau, from which he would conduct his own freelance diplomatic sorties. In fact, this fear of Peres’ activism is probably the reason for his losing the presidential election to Katsav back in 2000, but as the vote for president is, illogically, the only one conducted in secret in the Knesset, we will never know which members of Peres’ camp betrayed him behind the voting curtain.
However, since taking over as president in 2007, Peres has successfully reined in his political impulses to meddle and has assumed the role of the elder statesman with dignity and polish. His great age – at 90 he is currently the world’s oldest head of state ‒ has certainly helped here, but he has also kept up a pace of activity and travels that would not reflect badly on a person 20 years younger.
Ironically, the person who will be the saddest to see Peres step down from office will be the same person who did the most to demonize him when they were political rivals: Binyamin Netanyahu. Back in 1996, Netanyahu surprisingly defeated Peres in the first direct elections for prime minister through a vicious personal campaign centered on Peres’ supposed intention to divide Jerusalem in any peace agreement with the Palestinians.
OVER A decade later, rather than pay Netanyahu back in turn, Peres served as Netanyahu’s staunchest defender when the Likud leader returned to power as prime minister. As the rest of the world began to fear for the prospects of the peace process under a Netanyahu-led government, Peres put his Nobel Peace Prize-winner’s prestige on the line by publicly and privately insisting that Netanyahu could deliver a peace agreement.
So far, Peres has been proved sadly wrong in his assessment of Netanyahu’s desire or ability to bring peace, but as a true patriot who places Israel’s best interests over any personal gain, Peres continues to seek to put Israel’s best face forward to the world, rather than launch any attack on the recalcitrant prime minister.
In these times of a stagnated peace process and growing threats of economic boycotts, Israel needs a person of Peres’ stature on the world stage who can persuade the international community that it’s still not time to throw in the towel and leave Israel in diplomatic isolation.
Without Peres to smooth the waters with the US administration in the early stages of Barack Obama’s presidency and Netanyahu’s return to power, the prime minister would have faced a much rougher ride.
Internally, Peres as president has also been a success despite the divisiveness he always drew in his wake during his political career. Here, too, age has played its part – it is difficult to turn a man in his ninth decade into a figure of hate, while Peres also carefully removed himself out of the political fray. Never the warmest of people, Peres has managed to transform his coldness into quiet dignity so that although he never engendered the popular affection enjoyed by others such as former president Yitzhak Navon, he did earn the respect of those who once threw tomatoes at him while on the political campaign trail.
Peres has restored the shine to the office of the president that was so badly tarnished by Katsav. He will be a hard act to follow and whoever does succeed him will have to choose their own version of how a president should act, because succeeding Peres as the country’s elder statesman on the international stage will be an impossibility.
The writer is a former editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post.