In the midst of the war in Gaza, a quiet revolution has been taking place in the office of Israel’s president.
Shimon Peres’s recent retirement as the nation’s ninth president marked not only the conclusion of his illustrious seven-decade political career, but also the end of an era for the nation’s head of state.
The position that has attained unprecedented prominence over the last seven years has already begun receding into the background under Peres’s successor, Reuven Rivlin.
From David Ben-Gurion’s young aide to Israel’s elder statesman, Peres utilized his many positions over the years to exploit opportunities and advance ambitious goals. For better or worse, he never allowed himself to be constrained by anyone or by any position. True to form, Peres did not fit the mold of a conventional president. He transformed this largely obscure, ceremonial institution into a highly visible and relevant post that became a vehicle for advancing his policy goals and which served, at times, as the de facto opposition to the Netanyahu government.
To be sure, Peres deftly assumed the role of head of state, picking up numerous awards, crisscrossing the globe at a frenetic pace, and hosting myriad foreign dignitaries and celebrities who had come to Israel at his behest. The nonagenarian even embraced social media, becoming an active presence on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.
Peres expanded the limits of his post, however, to push his forward- looking agenda. He was a key backer, for example, of advancing neuroscience research in the hopes of finding cures for Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, mental illnesses, and potentially hundreds of other neurological disorders. He also utilized his clout to promote and raise funds for the controversial $10 billion Red Sea-Dead Sea “Peace Canal,” aimed at reversing the effects of the evaporating Dead Sea while generating electricity and desalinating water for Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
Most significantly, though, Peres accorded the presidency a new role as a check on the government. In the absence of a strong parliamentary opposition that could serve as an effective counterbalance to Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition, Peres took it upon himself to put the brakes on some of Netanyahu’s more aggressive plans and worked behind the scenes to pursue policies that were not supported by the government but which he felt were vital to Israel’s interests. At times, he even intervened in Israeli domestic affairs.
Peres grew increasingly concerned with a slew of bills introduced in the Knesset that many civil society actors have viewed as undemocratic.
The legislation included attempts to restrict foreign funding of left-wing NGOs critical of Israeli policies, a ban on the Muslim call to prayer via loudspeakers at mosques across Israel, and an amendment to the Defamation Law, which would increase maximum compensation paid for libel violations regardless of proof of damage.
Despite the support this legislation received from the prime minister and many of his ministers, Peres spoke out against the bills, saying he was personally “ashamed” that the Knesset was considering these laws.
Convinced that Netanyahu and his former defense minister, Ehud Barak, were planning a reckless military adventure in Iran aimed at preventing it from becoming a nuclear weapon state, Peres took it upon himself to thwart such an attack.
Despite Netanyahu’s and Barak’s entreaties to Peres that he remain silent on the matter, he refused and publicly warned against a strike in the absence of coordination with the United States, effectively quashing the government’s plans.
On the issue dearest to Peres’s heart – Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking – Peres initially gave Netanyahu the benefit of the doubt, believing the prime minister had finally come around on this issue after his Bar-Ilan speech in which he publicly endorsed a Palestinian state for the first time. When Peres eventually became disillusioned with Netanyahu and concluded he was not serious about reaching a deal with the Palestinians, he broke his silence, challenging the government’s hard-line approach on the Palestinian issue.
Opposing the government’s policy of rapid settlement construction, Peres warned that settlements threatened Israel’s Jewish majority by creating a demographic shift. He challenged the majority opinion in Netanyahu’s government that opposed a two-state solution, arguing that in its absence Israel would cease to exist as a Jewish state. And he dismissed Netanyahu’s demand that Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state – a demand not made of the Palestinian leadership in previous negotiations, nor of the Egyptians or Jordanians in their peace agreements with Israel – calling it unnecessary.
Peres’s greatest public challenge to Netanyahu concerned the question of whether Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas was a real partner for peace. While Netanyahu and senior members of his governing coalition have repeatedly cast doubt on Abbas’s suitability to reach a deal with Israel, Peres has been outspoken in his belief that Abbas is a worthy peace partner.
In 2011, Netanyahu gave Peres the green light to pursue a back-channel dialogue with Abbas. Peres recently revealed that he and Abbas had reached a framework for a peace agreement during these talks, claiming that Netanyahu torpedoed it.
In the race to succeed Peres, Netanyahu unsuccessfully tried to stymie the candidacy of frontrunner Rivlin, with whom he has had strained relations. Netanyahu was needlessly preoccupied with the prospect of another president who would make his life difficult. In all likelihood, however, the Rivlin presidency will revert to the institution’s traditionally symbolic, apolitical role. What may keep Netanyahu up at night is the role Peres will be carving out for himself in his retirement.
The author is an assistant professor of international relations at American University’s School of International Service. His forthcoming book, Why Hawks Become Doves: Shimon Peres and Foreign Policy Change in Israel, will be published by SUNY Press this year.