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 two-state solution.

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 make peace.”

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.

Traditionally, 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.”

Still, 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.

Those who 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.

It should 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.

Whether we agree or not, we should be lenient with a president’s occasional political comment, particularly when made by a man of Peres’s stature.

The only 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.

Please LIKE our Facebook page - it makes us stronger