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The lengthy Supreme Court hearing on the plea bargain deal struck between the attorney-general and former president Moshe Katsav, along with the serious criticisms by the judges of the prosecution, again project a sense of decay in our core institutions. On this backdrop, the restoration of one of these institutions, the presidency, becomes all the more important.
It is a tribute to President Shimon Peres that, after decades of being one of the more polarizing figures in Israeli politics, his inauguration was received with a high degree of equanimity, even relief. The relief is, of course, partly due to the man he is succeeding. Credit, however, must also be given to the undeniable stature, both national and international, that Peres brings to a position sorely in need of restoration.
In his speech to the Knesset, his first as president, Peres said: "I will be committed to nurture unceasingly those fine threads of fabric that weave us together as a nation... You here in the Knesset will carry on with existential polemics, as must be done in a democratic parliament, while I devote myself to unifying, so that the fervor of the storm does no harm."
There could be no more appropriate encapsulation of the president's role than this, and we believe that our new president means every word of it. Yet there is a tendency of leaders to treat the national consensus as synonymous with their own beliefs. After some 60 years of following this common political instinct, Peres must make the Herculean effort of distinguishing between what he believes is best for the nation and what the nation believes is best for itself.
In a sign that he has not yet learned to do this, Peres told AP this week: "We have to get rid of the territories... I won't make any secrets of my mind. I shall respect the minority. I shall not insult them... I changed my position. I didn't change my beliefs and concepts."
No one is expecting Peres to change his beliefs. Yet he is not only expected, but has pledged to transform himself from a polarizing politician to a unifying president. This necessarily means concrete changes in Peres's choice of issues to champion and of how to conduct himself.
If Peres is serious about changing his persona to fit his new role, there is much in his past that he could draw on. For starters, as some settler leaders have reportedly said, "We wanted to remember his success in Dimona, not his failure in Oslo."
In addition to his historic role in building Israel's deterrent posture, Peres was central in launching the settlement enterprise in the heart of Judea and Samaria.
Unlike Yitzhak Rabin, Peres is not associated with delegitimizing rhetoric against the settlement enterprise. It is not inconceivable that Peres, despite his well-known beliefs and track record, could still play a bridging role between the settlers, the government and Israeli society.
Most of the settlers, after all, understand by now that their original goal of annexing the entire area west of the Jordan is not achievable. There is an Israeli consensus that, ultimately, it is in our national interest not to rule over most of the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza, and that autonomy is not acceptable as a permanent arrangement. The new Israeli consensus is that a line must ultimately be drawn that puts as many Palestinians as possible on one side and and as many Israelis as possible on the other. The question is under what terms and circumstances this should be done.
The settler community has largely written itself out of this conversation by refusing to recognize its existence. This is destructive to the national fabric that Peres claims to want to repair.
President Peres could choose to stay away from such a contentious issue completely and focus on tamer ground, such as the environment, hi-tech, making Israel's case to the world and so on. Peres should certainly apply his formidable skills to such areas. But if he does not learn to become a true unifying force, or actually exacerbates existing rifts, all of his other efforts are likely to be overshadowed.
This would be a shame. It has been so long since we had a president who took his unifying role seriously, or did not sully it with contradictory actions, that we have almost forgotten the presidency holds such potential.
We hope that the presidency will not only be the pinnacle of Shimon Peres's remarkable career, but of the presidency itself. For that to happen, however, he must become a unifier not only in name and in his own mind, but to the people of Israel - including many of his most bitter critics.
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