Comment: The apolitical President Peres?

Of course he'll go on fostering peace - but in tandem with the government, or despite it?

peres 88 (photo credit: )
peres 88
(photo credit: )
Even his most ardent supporters cannot guarantee that Shimon Peres will maintain the apolitical status that should go hand in hand with the presidency. Conventional wisdom says that he has been a politician for far too long to be able to change his spots at this stage of his life. Peres himself has said he wants to be the president of all the people, including those whose political views are diametrically opposite to his, and those who are not Jewish. Not all right-wingers will be able to accept him - at least not initially. On the other hand, there are former residents of Gush Katif who readily acknowledge that after 2005's disengagement from the Gaza Strip, when they turned to members of the cabinet for assistance, it was Peres whose door was always open to them, and it was Peres who initiated various solutions to ease their plight. Every president has his pet projects. Moshe Katsav was interested in promoting the rights of Arabs and senior citizens. Peres will undoubtedly continue with his peace initiatives vis-à-vis the Palestinians and the rest of the Arab world. The question is whether he will conduct these initiatives in tandem with the government, or whether, regardless of government policy, he will go off and do his own thing. He does after all have special relationships in the Arab world that few if any other Israelis enjoy. Peres is also committed to promoting scientific and technological progress, and has long been a nanotechnology enthusiast. On the diplomatic front, he will do a lot more than accept the credentials of new envoys. Regardless of what positions he held, visiting foreign dignitaries always made a point of meeting with him, and now that he's president, there will be even greater eagerness for such meetings. Unofficial invitations for state visits have already begun to flow in to Beit Hanassi and the Foreign Ministry, and these will in all likelihood increase in the months ahead and will be followed up with official invitations. This of course poses the question as to how much time Peres will spend in Israel. He may already be Israel's most frequent flier. Whenever possible, he has also met with Jewish communities, or at least the representatives of their leadership. Now, it will be incumbent on him wherever he goes to include Jewish communities in his itinerary. He has announced that he wants to strengthen the Israel-Diaspora connection. Although he may tone down his political statements to both Jews and non-Jews, there will always be those who will read political innuendo into anything he has to say. But Peres, who has spoken about unifying Israeli society as well as world Jewry as a whole, may yet surprise everybody by putting politics per se on the back burner and really focusing on the common denominators that will bring people of disparate backgrounds together for the common good. Certainly, the other two living members (along with Katsav) of the Presidents' Club, the fourth and fifth heads of state - Ephraim Katzir, 91, and Yitzhak Navon, 86 - believe that he can. Katzir has published a supportive open letter to Peres in which he wrote that he had no doubt that Peres would turn Beit Hanassi into an open house for all the citizens of Israel, work toward regional peace, and encourage the younger generation to become involved in national aspirations. Navon, in a radio interview, expressed similar opinions. But there are those who cast doubts. A case in point is Moshe Negbi, the legal commentator for Israel Radio and Israel Television. He voiced concern over some of the presidential powers. For instance, if Peres is called upon to choose a political leader to form a new government, will he be tempted to select a former political cronies (as, some critics say, he was selected by Israel's sixth president, Chaim Herzog)? Negbi was equally troubled by the president's authority to grant pardons, even though he cannot do so without the agreement of the justice minister. Here again, though, Peres may surprise. As of Sunday night, the nation will be watching.