Middle Israel: Wrong man for president

When Katsav stunned Peres in the race for Weizman's succession, Israelis were furious.

October 26, 2006 13:55
amotz asa el 88

amotz asa el 88. (photo credit: )


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When Moshe Katsav stunned Shimon Peres in the race for president Ezer Weizman's succession, Middle Israelis were furious. The way they saw the situation, and as I put it in a controversial front-page comment August 1, 2000, it wasn't so much that the soft-spoken, lackluster and unimaginative Katsav was no match for the Nobel Laureate Peres, but that the vote was decided by the ultra-Orthodox parties, who throughout the campaign misled Peres, only to cunningly hand him an embarrassment he did not deserve, and which they were in no moral position to cause. That item, titled "The end of Zionism," provoked some because they thought Katsav would make an ideal president, and others because they thought Peres would not. Tragically, subsequent events could hardly vindicate us more. And yet, as they now stare at an astonishingly disgraced Katsav presidency, and at an in even more incredibly restored Peres candidacy, the same Middle Israelis who back in 2000 championed it must now oppose a Peres presidency as a political perversion and a moral travesty. Back in 2000 the Peres candidacy looked like a natural capping stone for an illustrious career, and its defeat as the result of a magnificent betrayal, one that only then-opposition leader Ariel Sharon could mastermind. Never mind, we explained, that Labor had delivered Shas and United Torah Judaism all they could ever desire, from wholesale military-service exemptions to Yossi Sarid's ouster from the Education Ministry. What mattered was that ultra-Orthodox politicians repeated their stab-in-the-back act of 1990, when they promised Peres the premiership only to break their promises in broad daylight. The fact that during his endless career Peres was never a secularist crusader impressed no one there, as people whose careers were dedicated to distancing thousands from the army and the workforce now nonchalantly decapitated the man who nuclearized Israel, built its aerospace industry and defeated hyperinflation, to mention but a few of Peres's claims to fame. But that was summer 2000 and this is fall '06. In the interim, two things happened which transformed Peres's place in history, less because of their own substance, and more because of his response to them. The first is the suicides' war, the second the establishment of Kadima. THAT THIS decade's Palestinian violence sobered up the same mainstream Israel that had previously given the Oslo process a chance, is well known. The post-Oslo disillusionment has been pervasive, and included erstwhile doves like Arabist Ehud Ya'ari, Meretz co-founder Amnon Rubinstein and political scientist Shlomo Avineri. It was this sobering up that eventually generated the anti-terror fence with massive public support, and tangible military results despite its many deficiencies. Tragically, Peres never managed to bring himself to do what so many other Middle Israelis could, namely to concede having made a mistake. In winter '01, when he and Ariel Sharon, respectively the high priests of the land-for-peace and Greater Israel school of thought, paradoxically found themselves sharing a political bed while the country was ablaze, history offered the two one last brush with greatness: the one who would be courageous enough to publicly question the dogmas with which he had fed the futile territorial debate that sapped Israel's political energies for the better part of two generations, would win the day. Sharon understood this. This is how he faced Likud's main party forum and said in its face that a Palestinian state had become inevitable, this is how he adopted the fence idea despite its potential compromise of what lies beyond it, and this is how he ended up disengaging from Gaza. Peres never understood this. This is why he stubbornly refused to regret having gone to Oslo, even while Yasser Arafat was mass-producing and hailing suicide bombers and even while we laid to rest, week in and week out, dozens upon dozens of their victims. Peres would like us to think he is the father of all pragmatists, one who so flexibly abandons one political home and joins another, one who today builds a bomb and tomorrow makes peace, one who in the morning reads Marx and in the evening Ecclesiastes, and the one who hailed from the thick of a socialist establishment only to ultimately herald a capitalistic revolution. While he is all these, when it comes to the Palestinian front he is anything but a pragmatist, and in fact emerges as dogmatic in his Osloism as Rabbi Haim Druckman is in his Messianism. Back in 2000, all this could not be factored in, for the simple reason that the Katsav-Peres contest took place, ironically, during the few weeks that were wedged between the Camp David summit and the violence that followed it. Six years and a thousand casualties later, the thought that the unreconstructed Peres, of all people, would bear the emblem behind which all frustrated Israelis are meant to rally is absurd. Still, Peres's refusal to concede what most Israelis see as his ideological naivete is not nearly as un-presidential as his political conduct last year. ONE OF many major riddles for Peres's biographers will be when he learned of Ariel Sharon's intention to leave his own party and start a new one. Was it before or after its public announcement? Was there a grand strategy on the part of that pair of longtime political rivals and personal friends, whereby they would merge Israel's two major parties and reinvent the Jewish state's political landscape, or was everything haphazard? All we know for now is that neither man ever suggested the two ever premeditated a Likud-Labor merger, and that days after actually serving as Labor leader Peres left his flock to follow another shepherd. Peres's move emerged as even more peculiar considering that unlike the only two other Laborites who joined Sharon - Haim Ramon and Dalia Itzik - he, Peres, still rejected his new party's belief in unilateralism. "Disengagement," he told the Post in a particularly memorable Peresism, "is Oslo," refusing to acknowledge that, for better or worse, disengagement was meant to treat Oslo's damage, and dismissed Peres's faith that deals with the PA were feasible, reliable and desirable. What, then, was an unflinching product of the old territorial debate doing in Kadima, the party that purported to bring together those who had shed their previous beliefs from Right and Left? Simple: Peres was there not to promote an idea, but prolong a career whose end had been long overdue. THIS RECORD of ideological rigidity and political insincerity should be alarming enough under any circumstances, but when it comes to a presidential candidacy it is altogether damning. Peres evidently does not get this, but the circumstances under which the presidency has become available in the first place are not merely about this or that politician vacating this or that position for this or that personal reason. Rather, it's about a major moral scandal, one which in turn is part of a much broader moral malaise, one that is plaguing the very concept of leadership here, contaminates our entire public sphere, and threatens our very future here. Certainly, Peres has nothing to do with the Katsav Affair. However, in his cynicism, opportunism and aloofness he has everything to do with the degeneration of Israel's political system. Never mind that the next president should not be Peres; he, or she, should be his inversion.

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