Next week’s presidential elections have an unprecedented six candidates vying to become Israel’s No. 1 citizen. It is often forgotten that even Israel’s first president, Haim Weizmann, was not an automatic choice for the position. He had to run off against Joseph Klausner in the Knesset ballot and also had to be re-elected two years later when the government changed.
Following Weizmann’s death in 1952, the government initially approached Albert Einstein, but he declined the proposal conveyed to him at Princeton by the then Israeli ambassador to the United States and the United Nations, Abba Eban, stating that “I have neither the natural ability nor the experience to deal with human beings.”
There were four candidates in the subsequent election and it took three rounds of voting until Yitzhak Ben-Zvi was elected with 62 votes to become the country’s second president, a position he held for an unprecedented 11 years, being re-elected twice along the way.
All Israeli presidents from Yitzhak Ben-Zvi to Ezer Weizman were members of, or associated with, the Labor Party.
Both the fifth and sixth presidents, Yitzchak Navon and Haim Herzog, were elected to the office despite the fact that Likud was in government at the time. Navon ran unopposed, while Herzog defeated the Likud candidate, High Court justice Menachem Elon.
In the case of Navon, his election took place shortly after the rise to power of the country’s first Likud government. Prime minister Menachem Begin decided not to oppose the man who would become the country’s first Sephardi prime minister. This was characteristic of the man who drew much of his support from the Mizrahi population and who went out of his way to show that he could be a prime minister for the entire country, despite his strong right-wing views.
Moshe Katsav was the first and only Likud president to date, defeating the present incumbent Shimon Peres in what has always been considered to be one of the biggest surprises of any presidential election to date.
Following the death of Ben-Zvi in 1963, a president’s term in office was limited to two consecutive periods of five years, but this was later changed to a single term of seven years beginning with Moshe Katzav and then Peres. Shazar, Herzog and Ezer Weizmann were all elected to a second term, although Weizmann resigned in 2000, just two years into his second term.
Six elections (1951, 1957, 1962, 1968, 1978 and 1988) have taken place with no opposition candidate, although a vote was still held. The only incumbent president to have been opposed for a second term was Ezer Weizmann, when he defeated Likud candidate Shaul Amor.
When Peres was elected seven years ago, there were three candidates on the slate, but both Colette Avital and Reuven Rivlin dropped out after the first ballot. This still required Peres to be elected, unopposed, on the second ballot.
Navon and Katzav are the only two ex-Presidents who are still alive – although their current positions could not be more different. Navon is a respected elder statesman, promoting many causes related to the Sephardic and Ladino heritage, while Katzav is presently serving a prison term after having been found guilty of sexual offenses.
What are the chances of the two “outside” candidates to become president, or at least to make it as far as the second ballot? The candidacies of Dalia Dorner and Daniel Shechtman mark the first time candidates lacking any formal political affiliation have run for the position of president. The 1973 election between Efraim Katzir and Efraim Urbach, two distinguished scholars and scientists, was ostensibly a non-political contest, but their candidacies were supported by the Labor and Likud parties respectively. The same is true of High Court justice Menachem Elon in 1983, put forward by the Likud to oppose Haim Herzog.
Given the fact that almost half of the present Knesset is composed of new members, almost none of whom are linked to the “old boys” political network, there could well be a surprise in store at next week’s ballot. This explains why both Shechtman and Dorner were each able to get 10 signatures together (20 altogether) to formally present their candidacies. It is unlikely that this would have been possible in previous Knessets.
It also explains why the last-minute candidacy of David Levy fell away as soon as he realized that the new members of the House were not personally acquainted with him. Despite his long Knesset career, he resigned from active political life in 2006 – and seven years is a long time in politics.
Since the vote is a secret ballot, the uncertainty is much greater, and once inside the ballot box many of the previous back-room promises to support candidates are often worthless. It is the secrecy of the ballot which goes a long way to explaining the surprise defeat of Peres in 2000.
If either Shechtman or Dorner were to step down, combining the support for a non-political candidate, it would not be impossible to envisage a second ballot run-off between Rivlin (who remains the popular political favorite) and either one of the “outsiders.”
Having come this far, it is unlikely to happen. But if it did, then my own preference would be for Dorner.
While there have been former scientists and professors (Haim Weizman and Efraim Katzir) in the role of president, there has not yet been a former High Court judge. While Shechtman’s Nobel Prize is an important factor in terms of international prestige, so too is Dorner’s record as a tough but fair judge defending human rights and citizenship, issues which today are under attack by the world as they seek to negatively portray Israel’s record in these areas.
Prior to becoming a High Court justice, Dorner rose up through the ranks to become a judge on the Military Court of Appeals. She was the first Israeli woman not serving in the Israeli Women’s Corps to reach the ranks of lieutenant-colonel and colonel. Following her retirement from the Supreme Court, she was appointed president of the Press Commission, bringing her legal talents to bear on the life of the public in general. She is also known for her role as one of the judges of John Demjanjuk in 1988.
Beyond her obvious attributes, it is high time that the country had its first woman president. A country which portrays itself as an enlightened western democracy has, in 66 years of history, had only one woman prime minister (Golda Meir), only one female president of the Supreme Court (Dorit Beinisch) and not a single woman president. This is not a record that Israel can be proud of, and it would be of great tribute to the members of the Knesset, and Israel as a whole, if they were to elect Dalia Dorner as the country’s tenth president.
The writer is dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben-Gurion University. The views expressed are his alone.