Today, Israel’s tenth president will be elected, and will face the daunting challenge of fitting into the shoes of President Shimon Peres.
Peres came into office when the presidency was at its low point, and leaves it at a high point. He has been, according to popular opinion, Israel’s best and most respected president. While the presidency in our country is mostly of a ceremonial nature, Peres has succeeded in transforming it into a position of real authority, in the all too necessary checks and balances of our political system. In many ways he became the anchor of the system, the voice of experience and wisdom, above the political chaos of petty party politics.
Throughout his career, Peres has enjoyed his controversy more than his popularity, never afraid to struggle for his views. Yet he leaves office next month as the most beloved statesman in the country and of the country.
There is much to conclude from his successful tenure as president, as the respect for Peres domestically and internationally is due to a kind of leadership that is very different from the more confrontational Israeli political leadership style, as we witnessed in the ugly race for his succession.
President Peres’ leadership is not only a reflection of Israel, but more importantly, a projection of what it should aspire to be. Peres has introduced a new style of political leadership and discourse. While even as president he rarely hid his views, he always expressed himself in a compassionate, eloquent and respectful way, without ever being arrogant or condescending. With this approach, he introduced a different political culture of mutual respect. Peres has a unique ability for an Israeli leader – he actually listens to people, mostly out of real curiosity.
The political culture that he introduced was filled with values, not ceremonies. Peres stands for real love for Israel, not blind extremist nationalism; he advocates real democracy born out of equality for all citizens rather than the usual syndrome of superiority of most of our leaders. He is a world statesman, who believes in contributing to the world, in contrast to the xenophobic tendencies in most political circles. He is a man of peace, a true believer, out of Israel’s strength, very different from the fearful peace cynics and skeptics. Above all, he is a man committed to serving the people, rather than dictating to them.
The fact that these attributes of his presidency, and the political culture that they reflect, are so respected and admired in this country bodes well for our future. Maybe we are not doomed after all to a political leadership style that thrives on an institutionalized ghetto and drowns in its own ego.
Peres’ presidency was not only one of word, but also of deed within the country and in the international arena.
The president stood for national cohesion. There is no community in the country that Peres did not engage with, there is not a neighborhood he did not visit. His national dialogue created a new base for internal coexistence, as well as openness to the multicultural nature of our country. As such he highlighted Israel as a fascinating mosaic of different shades and colors.
During his tenure, Peres was the defender of our democracy. This disciple of David Ben-Gurion is a great believer in the 10 commandments and in our Declaration of Independence. He sees the recognition of human equality as a moral cornerstone of our existence. To him, the existence of “complete equality to all,” in our Declaration of Independence, as based on the tenth commandment – “you shall not covet” (your neighbor’s house).
Based on these beliefs, Peres stood firmly against any expression of superiority and racism within our society. He condemned fiercely the “price tag” phenomenon and defended the respect for the rule of law and the high court.
When asked what his eleventh commandment would be, he said “respect your daughter and your son.” As such Peres, the nonagenarian, was the president of the young, believing in good education for all Israelis as the entry ticket to a better future. He brainstormed with many young people about our, and their, future. He is mostly challenged by the question of how technological and scientific advances can be translated into social good in the areas of defense, health, education and agriculture. He has respect for the imagination and ingenuity of the young and challenges them with his own boundless creativity.
Peres believes that the fact that our land was one of the only parts of the region in which there is no oil to be found was indeed a blessing. Due to this geographical misfortune of our forefathers, we had to rely on life’s greatest gift – the brain.
He advanced a plan for academic education during military service with the Education Ministry and the IDF. He also believes that English should be taught from kindergarten, as an entry ticket to the globalized world.
Above all Peres is a man of peace. He believes that the next step in the Zionist revolution is to make peace with our Arab neighbors.
In the first years of statehood, he dedicated himself, as Ben-Gurion’s right hand, to creating Israel’s strategic capacity. He established the aerospace industry and also Dimona against the beliefs of most experts. He told me once, “experts are only good for the past, not for the future.”
He contributed dramatically to our future national security, and therefore to our ability to make peace.
The force of Israel, in Peres’ view, has to be translated into diplomatic gains. Military might is most useful when it is not put to use. This is especially true for the era in which we live, where military means cannot solve political problems. Peres empathizes with what his friend US President Barack Obama said recently: “The fact that one has the biggest hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail.”
Peres’ peace strategy is based on a regional concept, of transformation from conflict to economic cooperation. This vision must be based on a solution to the Palestinian problem. He understands that it is not a nail.
The two-state solution that he envisages, mostly along the lines of the Clinton and Obama visions, is of critical importance to rescue our democratic-Jewish identity, and to maintain the moral high ground and our place among the nations. An Israeli rule over another people is un-Jewish to him. He often paraphrases Ben-Gurion, that the moral high ground is also the source of power.
Also, during his presidency, Peres did watch out for our national security interests, and continued his dialogue with the Palestinian leadership. His international credibility served the government, but could have served it more if there was the will.
He has developed a very close relationship with President Obama. All American presidents since Kennedy listened with interest and respect to his views on peace and security. In this he continues to cement our strategic relationship with Washington. It is therefore no coincidence that his last presidential trip abroad will be to the US, to be awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, the first to a sitting Israeli president.
In being a one-man foreign ministry, Peres is leading Israel’s exodus from the ghetto. To him this is the essence of modern Zionism; to have the strength not to hide behind walls of suspicion and to use it wisely in creating a new and better relationship with the world and the region.
On President Peres’ departure from office, Israel will salute him and miss him. The only one who will not miss the Peres presidency is Peres himself. He is already planning the next stage of his creative work for Israel and peace.
The author is the honorary president of the Peres Center for Peace, the founder of the YaLa Young Leaders peace movement, and was Israel’s chief negotiator of the Oslo Accords.