Between the first and second rounds of the Wednesday voting that saw Shimon Peres elected as the successor to suspended incumbent Moshe Katsav, Israel witnessed a rare moment of presidential behavior - in the best, most warming sense of that sadly discredited phrase.
Reuven Rivlin, heavily outscored by Peres in the first round of the secret ballot, swiftly internalized that his dream of becoming Israel's ceremonial head of state was not going to be realized. It must have been a crushing denouement after years of concerted cultivation of his candidacy. But Rivlin absorbed it with exemplary grace.
His voice intermittently deserting him as emotion overflowed, Rivlin urged his fellow legislators, genuinely and generously, to do what was best for the State of Israel: to vote for Peres in the second round even if they had been minded to maintain their support for his candidacy. He was withdrawing from the race, said Rivlin. The Knesset would serve the country well if it elected Peres as president by a unanimous vote.
Most of the erstwhile Rivlin supporters, as it turned out, ignored his plea and still voted against Peres, by now the only candidate, in the second ballot. But along with third candidate Colette Avital's voters, liberated by her withdrawal, some did heed the call. And so it came to pass that, by an overwhelming 86 votes to 23, Peres, the man so humiliatingly rejected by his fellow legislators seven years ago - in favor of that mild-mannered, self-effacing, seemingly so decent Katsav - became Israel's ninth president.
Rivlin's behavior contrasted sharply with that of Peres himself on some of the many occasions when he had found himself on the losing side of a leadership contest. He took his last such defeat, by Amir Peretz in the Labor leadership elections of 2005, with particular truculence, claiming fraud, waiting for more than a day before making the traditional congratulatory telephone call to his vanquisher and bolting Labor altogether soon afterwards, leaving his lifelong political home for the welcome mat laid out by Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert at Kadima.
Now it has to be hoped that Peres draws the appropriate lesson from Rivlin's conspicuous act of magnanimity - and recognizes the symbolism of his rival's action: A partisan opponent put aside narrow political interest and helped him to secure consensual support. The expectation, indeed the imperative, is that the former, necessarily partisan, vice prime minister Peres now do likewise - put aside narrow political interest and, as President Peres, strive to represent and emblematize the Israeli consensus, both internally and around the world.
Obviously, he can't do much worse than the last guy. But as a Nobel laureate who glides more smoothly than just about any other Israeli through the highest echelons of global power, he could actually do a world of good.
With Israel's very existence under intensifying threat from Iran and its allies, and its very legitimacy under concerted assault in countries that have been misled or chosen to blind themselves as to the nature of our struggle against murderous Islamic extremism, Peres has the international credibility and gravitas to drive home some much neglected truths. Who knows better than he, after all, how bitter was and is the betrayal by the Palestinian leadership, and much of the Palestinian public, of his hopes for a new, peaceful Middle East?
Astonishingly, the unarguable fact that the Palestinians could have forged a viable state in Gaza these past two years, rather than turning it into a war zone, seems to have escaped the international community. With the Israelis gone, there was absolutely nothing to prevent them from establishing stable mechanisms of law and order and, with funding flowing in from an admiring international community, nothing to prevent them from rehousing their refugees, building schools and hospitals, and encouraging the prospect of long-term reconciliation with Israel and similar progress in the West Bank. Nothing, that is, except their own elected leaders' determination to go on waging war against Israel, and to poison another generation of young Palestinian minds.
Peres, the Israeli leader who kept hold of the olive branch until the flames fanned by Yasser Arafat were positively burning his fingers, is living testament to Israel's efforts to bolster moderation. His presidential narrative, should he so choose, could be a corrective to the insistent delusions of those who argue that Hamas should be wooed and courted, and that its misconceived religious convictions can yet be moderated.
For that matter, who other than Peres, the jarring opponent of Menachem Begin's strike at Osirak in 1981, can better have internalized the salvation spelled by that audacious decision, and the urgent requirement for the international community to ensure that Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and their fundamentalist cohorts do not succeed where Israel ensured that Saddam Hussein failed? Nobody could seriously accuse Peres, the man who didn't want to take on Saddam, of exaggeration in sounding the alarm over Iran.
Living long and healthy has many benefits, one of which is the opportunity to recognize mistakes and implement the lessons learned. At 83, elder statesman Peres, now starting a seven-year term that should put a spring in the step of octogenarians everywhere, is uniquely placed to disseminate those learned lessons so crucial to Israel's long-term well-being - and to do so in the prime ministerial offices and presidential palaces where he can be assured a sympathetic hearing.
Of course, the man branded - and by his party colleagues, at that - to be an indefatigable conspirator, a serial underminer, could opt to carry his partisan baggage into Beit Hanassi, set himself up as an alternative to the elected leadership, promulgate his own policies, embark on his own initiatives. "You watch, he'll have a few more surprises up his sleeve," an astute, rival political veteran of only a slightly younger vintage, now out of office, said wryly to me Wednesday evening.
But the loyalty he has latterly shown to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, and the thrust of his acceptance speech, at least, suggest the opposite. "The president's role is not to deal with politics or partisanship," Peres said. "I recognize what the presidency is [and that] it is not a continuation of my political career." His job, henceforth, he said, would be to represent what unifies Israel, Right and Left, Jew and non-Jew, to champion the unique achievements of the reborn nation, to banish despair and to nurture hope. Amen.
GIVEN THAT Peres stirs such little indifference among the Israeli public - he is loved or loathed, but with a passion in both cases - it will not be easy for him to persuade his countrymen and women that he has risen above the political divides.
It is doubtful, indeed, that the public would have selected him for this office by a majority akin to the one he ultimately obtained in parliament, if at all.
But with Peres, as with this week's other big leadership winner, Ehud Barak, political circumstance has nonetheless provided a real opportunity for constructive change.
A former prime minister, defense minister and chief of General Staff, with an unparalleled record of military heroism, Barak has all the experience that Amir Peretz, and indeed Olmert, so expensively lacked when stewarding last summer's conflict.
Barak, too, may not have been the public's choice for defense minister. But Barak, too, can't possibly do worse than the last guy.
Still, there are acres of space for improvement. As prime minister, ever wary of political rivals real and imagined, Barak failed to galvanize the kind of well-rounded team without which no Israeli leader can hope to thrive - the kind of leadership, it must be said, that a succession of prime ministers has failed to assemble. All have been self-defeatingly obsessed with the need to stay in office, rather than the need to perform effectively while there.
Prime minister Barak, for instance, placed perceived threat and former ambassador Shlomo Ben-Ami not in the Foreign Ministry but in charge, ridiculously, of the police. Far more catastrophically, of course, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert placed perceived threat and former trade union chief Amir Peretz not at a socioeconomic ministry, but at Defense.
In selecting Barak, the man who abandoned his voters and bolted politics for big business, Labor's membership this week opted to reject a would-be leader, Ami Ayalon, who made a central feature of his campaign the commitment to build an effective leadership team, forswearing personal rivalries for the sake of Israel's burning national interests. Barak, in his victory speech, swore to chart precisely that kind of noble course this time - to try and restore Israelis' faith in their leadership, to unify, to work for the well-being of our society and for our security.
Given the stakes and the challenges, these words of our incoming defense minister, much like those of our soon-to-be president Peres, had better not be empty.
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