Middle Israel: Don’t know much about politics

Dan Shechtman’s surprising presidential bid has gained public support and caught politicians off guard. Their silence this week was reminiscent of the scientific hostility he faced en route to his Nobel prize.

PRESIDENT SHIMON PERES speaks with Technion professor Dan Shechtman before a session at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos. (photo credit: REUTERS)
PRESIDENT SHIMON PERES speaks with Technion professor Dan Shechtman before a session at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos.
(photo credit: REUTERS)

If scientists were equipped to be politicians, one might seek them in the physics labs – because physicists, like politicians, spend their days deciphering and manipulating leverage, vectors, pressure and counterweights.

In America, the successive elections to Congress since 1993 of three physicists in narrowing intervals made one of them joke that at such a rate of reproduction, America’s legislators would eventually be all physicists.
Yet the physicists’ political reach has been eclipsed by the political performance of chemists, considering that Margaret Thatcher and Angela Merkel rose to the leadership of great powers, and Chaim Weizmann’s achievements in the chemical lab helped create the diplomatic alliance that later produced the Jewish state which made him its first president.
Set against this backdrop, and considering the Israeli presidency’s history and challenges, Nobel laureate in chemistry Dan Shechtman’s announcement last week that he is running for president of Israel should have come naturally and been regarded a shoo-in.
It didn’t, and it isn’t.
IN A REVERSAL of Joseph’s dream, the largely ceremonial Israeli presidency is completing seven good years that followed seven bad years.
The good years are about Shimon Peres’s restoration of the presidency as a bastion of respectability, pride and consensus. The bad years were the incumbency of Moshe Katsav, whose eventual conviction and imprisonment were but the climax of a mediocre politician’s lackluster presidency, the likes of which the Jewish state had not experienced, even regardless of that term’s appalling aftermath.
Israel’s presidency has been designed to fulfill the functions of royalty in constitutional monarchies.
Technically, this involves seemingly trivial functions like accepting foreign ambassadors’ credentials, rubber-stamping the appointments of judges and the governor of the Bank of Israel, formally assigning a newly elected Knesset’s prime minister- designate and festively inaugurating every seasonal Knesset session.
The one actual power the presidency wields, pardoning prisoners, is hardly enough for power-hungry politicians. Understandably, then, Weizmann complained that , as president, the only place he was allowed to push his nose into was his handkerchief.
Even so, there is more than meets the eye to the ostensibly ceremonial position which exists in several dozen parliamentary democracies, including Germany, Italy and Ireland.
All countries that have a ceremonial president hope the office will embody, and when necessary also inspire, the national conscience. Entire presidencies can come and go without this function ever being tested, but when the test does arrive, this office suddenly proves its utility. Turkish President Abdullah Gul, for instance, is facing such a challenge right as his country is beset by a constitutional crisis.
In Israeli history this need arose three times, and only once did the president of that moment rise to the occasion. The one moment in which the Israeli presidency passed its test, and also helped shape history, came in fall 1982, following the massacres of Sabra and Shatilla during the First Lebanon War.
Though all of Israel realized that the bloodbath was perpetrated by Lebanese Christians, many felt that the general circumstances required Israeli retrospection, a feeling that was shared even by some in the circle of then-prime minister Menachem Begin, who initially refrained from supporting the establishment of a commission of inquiry. Yitzhak Navon emerged from his position’s confines, and publicly demanded the establishment of such a judicial commission. Begin dutifully obeyed the presidential call, thus creating the precedent whereby the president’s moral authority is a factor in nationally sensitive moments.
The presidency’s moral sway was missing after Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination in 1995. Then-president Ezer Weizman’s eulogy between the flag-draped coffin and a battery of monarchs, princes, prime ministers and presidents struck many as banal and pedestrian, reflecting his inability to nurse a bruised nation’s wounds and soothe its tormented soul.
Equally failing was Ephraim Katzir, president during the Yom Kippur War, the national trauma whose shock and demoralization begged a presidency that would raise the public’s morale and restore its sense of purpose.
Yet Katzir, an uncharismatic scientist who was parachuted into the presidency by Golda Meir, proved socially aloof and politically irrelevant.
His most memorable statement, “We are all to blame,” was taken by many as tactless and baseless, as too many people felt the ordinary citizen was to blame for nothing, and the politicians were to blame for everything.
Katzir, incidentally, was not just a scientist; he was – you might have guessed it – a chemist. What, then, does all this mean for Shechtman’s candidacy? Dan Shechtman is different. He is different from Thatcher and Merkel in that he is not an aspiring politician, and he is different from Weizmann and Katzir in that he really wants to be president.
The phenomenon of a self-propelled presidency is relatively new in Israel. Until two decades ago, it was considered unbecoming for a public figure to personally seek the presidency. Instead, it was initiated and promoted by others while the candidate waited patiently and passively for the Knesset to figure out its will.
The first to break this tradition was Ezer Weizman, who openly set up in 1993 a whole campaign operation in specially rented offices from which politicians, the public and the media were unabashedly lobbied. Ever since, the presidency has been sought from below rather than bestowed from above. In this regard, Shechtman’s move is part of the Zeitgeist. However, in terms of his background, his candidacy feels retro.
Originally, Israel’s presidents were scholars. Between Weizmann and Katzir the chemists, came Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, the ethnographer, and Zalman Shazar, the historian of Hassidism. Other candidates in those years were historian of Hebrew literature Yosef Klausner, historian of the sages Ephraim Elimelech Urbach, and historian of Hebrew law Menachem Elon, who was at the time also an incumbent Supreme Court justice.
Now this list of luminaries is contrasted with a gallery of mediocre politicians, ranging from Labor’s Binyamin Ben-Eliezer to Likud’s David Levi through Kadima’s Dalia Itzik, all former ministers who lack gravitas, least of all a Nobel laureate’s.
Chances that they will impress abroad and inspire at home are low at best.
A bit different from them, but still part of that pack, is former Knesset speaker Reuven Rivlin, who despite being a right-wing ideologue, is appreciated also on the Left as an impartial legalist, a liberal humanist and a potentially unifying president – especially in case of a controversial deal with the Palestinians.
ALSO A bit different among the pack of political candidates is Natan Sharansky, whose name has been touted as well. Sharansky’s international aura as a Soviet dissident would place the Israeli president alongside Germany’s Joachim Gauck, a pastor who was a dissident in the former East Germany, as well as Lech Walesa and the late Vaclav Havel, who led the dissident movements of Poland and the former Czechoslovakia before becoming their presidents.
Then again, Sharansky has long been a politician. The last time a non-politician ran for president was in 1983, when justice Elon was narrowly defeated by Chaim Herzog.
Ever since, the president has been a politician. Indeed, this institution’s history can be divided in two: The era of the intellectuals and the era of the politicians.
Shechtman’s candidacy attempts to rewind the Israeli presidency to its original era.
The public responded with enthusiasm to the 72-year-old scientist’s unexpected announcement, as Facebook’s chain reactions quickly produced multiple endorsements and petitions. Alas, this race will not be decided by the public, much less by the blogosphere, but by the very people it defies: the politicians.
The Shechtman candidacy has left 120 lawmakers dumbfounded. As of this writing, he has yet to win one Knesset faction’s endorsement. As a matter of fact, he has yet to garner even the 19 signatures without which he will not even become a candidate.
Shechtman’s most natural support should come from the political Center. Finance Minister Yair Lapid and the rest of his 19-member faction’s stated quest to flood the public sphere with non-politicians, and to prefer merit over privilege, should make them back this candidacy almost automatically. The same goes for Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and her six-member faction. Yet as of this writing, the two have yet to respond to the candidacy.
Opposition leader Isaac Herzog – incidentally the son of sixth president Herzog – would also have been a natural supporter of Shechtman’s candidacy, but he faces a lobby within his Labor Party for its former chairman Ben-Eliezer. As of this writing, he too has not responded to Shechtman’s challenge.
And looming above all these is Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.
On the face of it, considering his deep concern for Israel’s image abroad, and his great pride in its scientific and technological achievements, Netanyahu would be a natural supporter of a candidacy like Shechtman’s. However, he has yet to respond to it as well.
Netanyahu might be concerned about the Technion professor’s distant roots in the Labor movement, which included membership in a socialist youth movement.
Asked on Channel 1 TV what kind of a president he plans to be, Shechtman carefully avoided foreign affairs, where his views are indeed unknown, unlike his fellow Nobel laureates chemist Ada Yonath and economist Robert Aumann, whose leanings, hers to the Left and his to the Right, are well-known. Instead, Shechtman said he would focus on domestic issues, in the way he has been critiquing and campaigning for a reinvention of the educational system.
Such conviction, while welcomed outside the Knesset, can sound threatening to politicians, including Netanyahu. To them, a scenario whereby a popular and internationally admired president questions budgetary policy, and maybe also inspires social protest, is alarming rather than inspiring.
And so, the chemist who earned his fame in the field of crystals, for now sees the ball he threw at the politicians crystallizing them into a molecule of tightly bound, fearful, suspicious and self-centered atoms.
Back when he emerged with it, the young Shechtman’s thesis about the existence of quasi-crystals was met with hostility among chemists, led by American Nobel laureate (for peace) Linus Pauling, who said “there are no quasi-crystals, only quasi-scientists.”
Decades later, after having won that war as impressively as he did, Shechtman reportedly said, “I enjoyed every moment of that scientific battle.” It is doubtful he will feel that way once done with the new battle he has joined.