As Shimon Peres begins his term as Israel's ninth president, he is entering perhaps the final chapter of his six-decade public career. After the last two disappointing and scandal-laden terms of Ezer Weizman and Moshe Katsav he is rightly expected to restore honor and dignity to the presidency. That basic task should not be too difficult for him to do. The real question is this: Will Peres transcend the defined limits of his new post by offering a much-needed vision for Israel's future? True, the presidency is largely a ceremonial, non-political position. Peres will not be able to pursue independent policies. Yet, in the hands of a capable elder statesman that office need not be devoid of substance. As the leader charged with personifying the nation, the president can be a powerful voice for change.
Comment: The apolitical President Peres?
Peres is uniquely qualified to leave his mark in at least five important areas: uprooting corruption, promoting civility and battling domestic violence, mending Arab-Jewish relations, fostering economic relations with Israel's neighbors, and advancing the Middle East peace process.
One way Peres might choose to begin his presidency is by leading a campaign to stamp out corruption, a phenomenon that has seeped into Israeli society at every level, and which undermines the very foundations of Israel's democracy. Peres ought to establish a presidential commission that would investigate corruption and recommend ways to introduce greater transparency to the country's institutions.
THERE IS A consensus that Israel's image will receive a major boost with Peres representing the country; and indeed, he has an international reputation second to none. That he is more like a European gentleman than a rough-hewn sabra is a factor that may have cost him dearly in past elections, but has worked to enhance his respectability abroad.
Israelis will be able to take pride in Peres's ability to calmly and ably defend Israel in the international arena. Arguably of greater importance, though, is the need for the president to introduce civil discourse to Israeli society. A decency campaign would be most welcome, as would programs aimed to counter the disturbing trend of a rise in youth and domestic violence.
Relations between Israel's Jewish and Arab citizens received a major blow in the October 2000 riots and have not quite recovered since then. Peres is well-positioned to help heal the rifts, something that should have been done years ago. He must send a clear message to Israel's Arab citizens that they too are a vital part of the state. Such a message, however, would have to be followed up by concrete plans to improve their lot in society.
The president should work to ensure that that the recommendations of the Orr Commission, established in the wake of the October events, are implemented. He also should hold regular, ongoing consultations with leaders of the Arab community so that their concerns are heard, conveyed to the appropriate authorities, and addressed in a timely manner.
ECONOMIC cooperation is a cause Peres has long championed. In his most recent post, he has overseen some significant undertakings in this regard such as the "Valley of Peace" project, a 500-kilometer-long common economic zone that is expected to benefit Israel, Jordan and West Bank Palestinians.
For many months Peres has traversed the world raising funds for the construction of industrial and scientific parks, a joint international airport for Israel and Jordan, and joint tourism, water, agriculture and economic projects. Given its largely apolitical nature, Peres should continue to devote attention to this significant economic and environmental endeavor to help ensure its fruition.
The toughest question, however, will be the extent to which Peres will influence the direction of the peace process with the Palestinians and the Syrians. On the one hand, there is hardly an issue that is more political and potentially divisive than this one, raising serious doubts about whether the president should get involved at all. On the other hand, Peres is among the most qualified Middle Eastern leaders to break the stalemate in the peace process and help find creative solutions to the most difficult final status issues.
Since Peres's election to the presidency, many pundits have thus speculated as to whether Israel's ninth president will become immersed in the struggle for peace, or opt to stay out of this hornet's nest altogether. Neither option appears to be entirely satisfactory.
Peres is fond of saying that when one is faced with two unappealing alternatives, a leader must look for a third one nobody else has thought about. If history is any guide, Peres can be counted on to find a way to contribute to this issue as well in his new role.
The writer is a doctoral candidate in the department of Government and Politics at the University of Maryland. His dissertation focuses on Shimon Peres's role in Israeli foreign policy decision-making.