President Shimon Peres is under fire, once again, for speaking his mind. During
an annual conference of Israel’s ambassadors at the President’s Residence, Peres
sounded off on an issue close to his heart: peace negotiations with the
Palestinians. Referring to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas as a
“partner for peace,” Peres declared that there was no alternative to the
In response, Likud Beytenu issued a statement saying,
“It’s very unfortunate that the president chose to express a personal political
view that is detached from public opinion when it comes to Abbas, who refuses to
This is not the first time Peres has intervened on
controversial political matters, matters that have normally been avoided in the
past by the men who have served as president.
In August, Peres’s “We
can’t go it alone” comment on the prospects of a solo Israeli preemptive
military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities sparked debate over whether or not
he had overstepped the bounds of his mandate as president.
the role of president has been primarily symbolic. This can be illustrated in
the following anecdote: In 1951, the visiting US secretary of labor passed on a
message from President Harry S. Truman to our first president, Chaim Weizmann,
expressing his disappointment with Weizmann for not taking a stronger position
concerning the protection of Arab refugees. Weizmann, who was in his mid-70s at
the time, replied, “I am only a constitutional president and it is outside my
province. My handkerchief is the only thing I can stick my nose into. Into
everything else – it’s [prime minister David] Ben-Gurion’s nose.”
while the president’s duties are outlined in the 1964 Basic Law: The President
of the State, there is nothing in the law that would prohibit the office-holder
weighing in on issues he deem to be pressing or important. And the president is
appointed by the Knesset – a democratically elected body – which makes the
choice of president a reflection of the will of the people. Those who voted for
him knew Peres’s political positions.
Nevertheless, most past presidents
have remained apolitical.
Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, Zalman Shazar and Ephraim
Katzir, Weizmann’s early successors – all of whom were more intellectuals than
politicians – restricted themselves to the figurehead role accepted by the
elderly and nearly blind Weizmann.
But Yitzhak Navon, the first real
politician to become president, was also the first president to deviate from the
Weizmann mold when in 1982 he criticized Israel’s alleged role in the Sabra and
Shatila massacre. Against prime minister Menachem Begin’s wishes, the fifth
president called publicly for an inquiry into the incident, leading to the
creation of the Kahan Commission.
Ezer Weizman, another
politician-turned-president, made controversial statements against homosexuality
during his stint. And he revealed his male chauvinism when he advised Alice
Miller, the winner of a landmark 1995 High Court decision allowing women to take
the air force pilot’s test, that she would be better off darning socks than
flying fighter jets.
Attacks on a president for making controversial
comments are usually motivated by political considerations, Rarely are they the
result of a principled position on the limits of a president’s powers and
functions, though they are sometimes disguised as such.
attacked Navon for taking a position on Sabra and Shatila or who are now
lambasting Peres for his two-state comments might be more magnanimous with the
president’s leeway if the opinions voiced were more hawkish.
come as no surprise that politicians on the Left and Center-Left were the most
outspoken in the defense of Peres’s right to speak his mind.
agree or not, we should be lenient with a president’s occasional political
comment, particularly when made by a man of Peres’s stature.
prime minister to serve as president, Peres has decades of political experience
under his belt. If in bringing that experience to bear on current events, he is
of the opinion that a diplomatic opportunity is being missed or a potentially
damaging policy mistake is being made, he not only has the right to voice his
opinion, he has an obligation to do so.
But to prevent a situation in
which the president becomes a divisive figure instead of a consensus one capable
of representing all walks of society, Peres and future presidents should be
careful not to overstep the boundaries of their office.