Shimon Peres has accomplished one thing as president: He has restored dignity to the office.
Both of his immediate predecessors, Moshe Katsav and Ezer Weizman, left under clouds of suspicion.
Weizman resigned two years into his second term after accusations surfaced that as a businessman he had received funds without reporting them. He was spared the ignominy of a trial only because of the statute of limitations. Katsav quit in the last days of his first term over allegations of pre-presidency rape and sexual harassment that later resulted in a conviction and seven- year sentence.
By comparison, the only thing Peres is being accused of as he prepares to leave office is treason.
One columnist at this newspaper takes umbrage at the possibility that, as if Peres’s role in the Oslo Accords (the “worst strategic blunder in Jewish history”) weren’t enough, the “subversive,” “showboating” president with a “narcissistic, sociopathic view of the world” actively sought to undermine the work of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. Most treacherously, the columnist writes, Peres colluded with the country’s security heads, and even with the Obama administration, in a “criminal conspiracy” to undermine Israeli plans to attack Iran’s nuclear sites.
You have to admit, of course, that these allegations are much more decorous than complaints about lust for money or sex. And they are limited mostly to the far Right, where participation in Oslo should be punishable by stoning and any talk of a two-state solution means you’re an anti- Semite or self-hating Jew. So yes, you have to admit that dignity has at long last returned to the President’s Residence. The real question, though, is whether, with all these shenanigans, it’s worth maintaining the office.
The presidency, now a seven-year affair limited to a single term, has been with us since the founding of the state, when the idea apparently was to confer upon Israel prestige by choosing someone who had made a significant contribution to the Jewish people, and even to mankind.
The first to hold the post, Chaim Weizmann, was arguably the most important Zionist after Theodor Herzl. As a world-renowned chemist (he is considered by some to be the “father” of industrial fermentation) he helped Britain during World War I by coming up with a way to ferment acetone, a crucial ingredient in the manufacture of cordite that was in short supply.
But he also had the ear of fellow Mancunian Arthur James Balfour, an ex-prime minister who was serving as foreign secretary in the wartime government of David Lloyd George. In this way he procured the vaunted Balfour Declaration, which, by threading from the 1920 San Remo conference through the League of Nations and finally to the United Nations, fermented in its own way to become the legal basis for Jewish rights in Palestine.
In 1952, with Weizmann’s death, prime minister David Ben-Gurion put out feelers to Albert Einstein. The physicist’s Zionist credentials were not nearly as eminent or consequential as those of Weizmann, but as perhaps the greatest and best-known scientist the world had ever produced he could bring a true sense of gravitas, prestige and prominence to the still-nascent state.
In his reply, Einstein said that although he was “deeply moved” by the offer to be president, he was “at once saddened and ashamed” to turn it down, citing not only his advancing age but his lack of suitability.
“All my life I have dealt with objective matters,” he wrote, “hence I lack both the natural aptitude and the experience to deal properly with people and to exercise official functions.”
Of course, by that time Einstein was well established in a comfortable yet still highly visible retirement at Princeton. And the letter from Abba Eban with Ben-Gurion’s little trial balloon did note, after all, that being president “would entail moving to Israel and taking its citizenship... ” If anything is clear from his reply, the eminent scientist certainly would have made a good diplomat.
From there you might say it was somewhat downhill for Israel’s heads of state. Its second president, Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, although an important historian and Zionist activist, was also a politician allied with Ben-Gurion. Its third president, Zalman Shazar, was a journalist and poet. But like Ben-Zvi he was a Ben-Gurion acolyte from the ranks of Mapai.
With the fourth, Ephraim Katzir, Israel’s presidency seemed to veer away from politics and back toward science. Katzir was a biophysicist of international renown for his work with enzymes. He was also an expert on explosives and became what amounted to the IDF’s first chief scientist before moving up the ranks at the Weizmann Institute of Science to head its department of biophysics. Yet it was still a time when the only way to get ahead within state-affiliated bodies or enterprises was by having political connections, and with the next president, Yitzhak Navon, things had veered back totally toward politics, and for good (although it’s safe to say that Navon and his successor, Chaim Herzog, were held in extremely high regard for their intellect and accomplishments).
The job of the presidency is ceremonial, although there’s a bit of muscle in that the head of state can recommend pardons or commute sentences for criminals. Day in and day out, though, it means accepting the credentials of newly arrived diplomats, rubber-stamping the recommendations of cabinet ministers or experts, giving out awards and receiving visiting dignitaries, be they fellow heads of state or the odd or very odd Hollywood star passing through. Perhaps the only bright spot is getting to travel the world as a kind of uber-ambassador, although you can be sure that such travels are full of the same tedious pomp and circumstance, just in reverse.
Who would want the job today, you might ask. For politicians the answer is really no one, primarily because it means that your career is over and they’re offering you a kind of consolation prize. I mean, just look at Reuven Rivlin, Binyamin Ben- Eliezer, Meir Sheetrit and Dalia Itzik, fine and talented politicians all, just not exactly ready for prime (ministerial) time. And Dalia Dorner, one of the two non-politicians running, never made it to the presidency of the Supreme Court, having to be satisfied with heading the lofty Israel Press Council.
Only one candidate, the other non-pol in the running, can say he already reached his Olympus. Dan Shechtman, a professor at the Technion and a member or consultant to a long string institutes, think tanks, laboratories and councils here and around the world, won a Nobel Prize for chemistry in 2011 for his discoveries in the realm of quasiperiodic crystals. You simply know this guy is smart – I just wonder why he’d want to subject himself to secret balloting at the hands of 120 people responsible for some of the most unscientific behavior ever. But he’s probably the darkest of the dark horses, so you can forget about him.
Rivlin, the current front runner, is a nice enough guy but exudes zero gravitas. Ben- Eliezer, one of his two closest competitors, exudes even less. Itzik, who is the only other candidate with a chance, seems to suffer from congenital humorlessness.
Perhaps we should just give it up. Or better yet, maybe we should undo the law of succession and ask Peres to sign on for another seven years, or for as long as he wants. He’s close to 91 yet has the snappy gait and clear eyes of people a third his age. Of course, this wouldn’t sit well with wing-nuts, what with all his showboating and subversive behavior. But there’s time before June 10. Waddaya say, Shimi?