Professor Dan Shechtman won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 2011 for seeing something that everybody told him wasn’t there: crystals with a five-sided shape – “material with pentagonal symmetry.” He stood by his scientific conviction for 30 years, unwavering, before he was vindicated. He knew he was right and nobody was going to dissuade him.
Shechtman is one of only two “outsider” candidates (with ex-Supreme Court judge Dalia Dorner) running for election next week to be Israel’s tenth president. In an interview in the small office made available to him as he campaigns among the electorate — the 120 members of parliament — he speaks of what he’ll do when he wins the race to succeed Shimon Peres, not if. He says firmly that he is the most worthy of the candidates, the one who would do the job best. Given his track record of persistence and vindication, of identifying what others fail to recognize, you might think it would be foolish to doubt him.
Except that the presidency is not a Nobel-style meritocracy, selected by scientific process, where the most deserving will ultimately prevail. By its very nature, the battle for Beit Hanassi (the President’s Residence) is a sordid, secretive war. The man (or just possibly woman, in this case) who gets to host princes and popes, to pardon prisoners, to comfort the bereaved and try to unify the nation must first have unified a majority of this divided nation’s diverse, scheming, self-interested parliamentarians.
The pre-election indications are that Shechtman has been unable to do any such thing. Opinion polls among the public — irrelevant surveys, given that the people of Israel whom the president serves for seven years have no say in the choice — consistently place Shechtman second only to (Likud) frontrunner Reuven Rivlin. But there has been no major outpouring of public enthusiasm, no mass demand for president Shechtman, no profound sense that this erudite, well-intentioned (if distinctly elevated and self-regarding) science master has connected.
Inside the Knesset, it was a protracted, undignified, even humiliating struggle for him simply to obtain the 10 MKs’ signatures necessary to formally submit his candidacy. This is an affront that plainly rankles; Shechtman mentions the minor unfairness that requires a non-serving MK to gather 10 signatures while a serving legislator, who can nominate himself, requires only another nine. Every last endorsement, it would appear, was a trial. (In fact only three of his five rivals are sitting MKs — Rivlin; Labor’s Binyamin Ben-Eliezer and Hatnua’s Meir Sheetrit. The two women in the race — ex-MK Dalia Itzik (Labor/Kadima) and former Supreme Court justice Dorner — also had to muster 10 signatures.)
Moreover, even though Benjamin Netanyahu was desperate to thwart a Rivlin presidency — to the extraordinary extent of first seeking to abolish the entire office, and then risibly wooing the ineligible Elie Wiesel (who is not an Israeli citizen) — the prime minister emphatically did not alight on Shechtman as his salvation. On declaring his plans to run, the professor wrote a letter to Netanyahu saying he would like to work with him and would not wish to be a confrontational president; the Nobel laureate did not even receive the courtesy of a reply.
In this interview, conducted in that small, temporary Knesset office, the outsider candidate explains why, in their secret ballot on June 10, MKs should put aside their narrow interests and recognize him as the contender Israelis could feel most proud of, the nominee who could best represent Israelis at home and abroad, the applicant with the clearest vision. He is cogent and passionate, notably on the imperative for an Israeli educational and behavioral revolution, to create a citizenry more learned, cultured and decent. (He frames some of these arguments in terms that strain the limits of political correctness, but then he’s not a politician.) He sets out admirable formulae for avoiding a partisan presidency. He highlights his unblemished personal life, sadly relevant given the failings of others in this regard. Facing a different jury — the familiar scientific evaluation — he’d have a compelling case. But with politicians…?
Shechtman starts our interview before I’ve asked him a question. I mention that a friend of a friend has been volunteering in his campaign, and he responds by noting that “I have a team of assistants, they are all volunteers. Out of principle, I am not spending money on this election – not a penny. I haven’t hired PR people.” The conversation then unfolds as follows:
The Times of Israel: And the other candidates are spending money?
Dan Shechtman: They hire PR people. I don’t. Just today, the spouses of the candidates, or their representatives, appeared on Channel 10. So they invited my eldest daughter, and she appeared there. Dalia Itzik sent an acquaintance of hers, who is a doctor, and someone else’s acquaintance was there as well. It’s strange.
I’m proud of my family, very proud – I have ten grandchildren, four children, and one wife. Every one of them who is old enough can represent me. I have a granddaughter who is now in the army, she is 18 years old, who is very happy to represent me in every forum…
Let me ask you why and when you decided that it would be a good idea to run for this position?
The truth is that it didn’t come from me. When I heard about [the idea], I said oh, well, I’m not getting into it, my life is so good and my international reputation is so strong. Wherever I go in the world, I’m treated like royalty. If I accepted all the invitations, I would have to cram three years into every year. So what do I need this for?
Then, people – acquaintances and friends – contacted me, and eventually I started to think that perhaps I could promote my ideas if I became president. After all, it’s easier to do so from that position than from the Technion. Eventually, I was contacted by a friend from my youth, who went to high school with me. His name is Moti Shmueli, and he used to be the CEO of Elta. He is also a Technion graduate, and we have the same background. He said, “I’m with you, I’ll help you.”
Then I made up my mind, and I did two things: first of all, we called [journalist] Ayala Hasson and told her: “We want to make the announcement through you, on Channel 1 on television, because it’s the public channel.” Viewership was not a consideration – it doesn’t have a high viewership, but it’s the public channel. And I personally appreciate Ayala Hasson very much.
That was the first thing. And I wrote a letter to the prime minister saying that I would like to work with him and that I wouldn’t be a confrontational president. But I never received a response to that letter, and the truth is that I never met with Netanyahu to talk seriously [about this], although I requested such a meeting several times.
Ayala Hasson announced what she announced, and I, of course, appeared… That was how it all began.
Now, why do I need all this? I really am sacrificing a lot for this position. Because [before I put my name down for it,] my life was so good that it’s hard to describe. But thinking strategically about where we would like to see ourselves 20-30 years from now, there are things that I believe have to be done right in this country.
When my grandchildren are older and my great-grandchildren start growing up, first of all, I want them to be in Israel. I don’t want them to leave the country because they have no choice. In a minute, I’ll show you something that somebody wrote to me. I don’t want that to happen. That’s why they need to have a good future in Israel, to find life in Israel agreeable.
(Shechtman later shows me a signed email from a father, who has heard him on the radio talking about ensuring an Israel our children will want to live in. The correspondent says he is writing “with tears in my eyes” since he and his two children are leaving the country next month, apparently because of economic hardship. “The Israel that I love and in whose army I served has forced me out,” he writes.)
‘Our youth don’t know how to behave. In extreme cases, they are violent to the point of murder. And in the mild cases, they are simply rude – not because it is in their nature, but because they don’t know how cultured people behave’
So what do we have to do so that people find it pleasant to live in Israel? There are a few things, and the State of Israel today doesn’t do enough in these areas. From the position of president, I could address these issues in a very practical way, through dialogue with ministers, MKs, and the general public.
We have to ensure that it is pleasant to live here both in the social sense and the economic sense. In the social sense, we need to improve the education system. The Education Ministry doesn’t have a curriculum for education. It has curriculums for every subject — history, geography, Hebrew, bible, math. But there is no curriculum for education. So we are not educating the youth in a systematic way, and the result is that our youth don’t know how to behave. In extreme cases, they are violent to the point of murder. And in the mild cases, they are simply rude – not because it is in their nature, but because they don’t know how cultured people behave. They have to be taught how cultured people behave, starting from kindergarten.
“You can’t steal your friend’s toy, you can’t do that.” [You have] to explain to them, slowly and good-naturedly, “Look, he’s your friend, isn’t he? Come, split [the toys equally] between you; he can have one toy and you can have another one. Or you can share, play with one toy together.”
Start from kindergarten, then continue through elementary school, then high school, then the army. Don’t stop educating, even in the army. An education officer needs to educate. How can you turn a man into a mensch, a cultured person? Education.
And [we need] to mold people who will be social leaders, individuals who won’t allow injustice to take place. Individuals who will stop bullies in their tracks when they see them hitting other children. [To say,] “Your behavior is socially unacceptable, we don’t view it favorably. You can’t behave this way.” Not to respond with violence, but…
By the way, my wife, who is a professor at the University of Haifa, is an international expert on various subjects related to education, such as the prevention of violence in schools. She really is a global expert. So that’s it — education, knowledge.
Now, the second thing. Look, we have excellent universities here in Israel. But for a long time now, they haven’t been allowed to develop. Let me give you an example: Dozens of new faculty members are hired by the Technion each year. Natural attrition. The old ones leave, and the younger ones take their place. The cost of each new faculty member is close to $800,000. In other words, each year, the Technion spends $24 million just on new faculty members, of which the government contributes $4 million. It barely helps us! What’s $4 million out of $24 million? To cover the rest, we have to find donations. We rush around the world — the president of the Technion rushes around the world — to solicit donations that will enable him to hire faculty members who, at the end of the day, are about to serve the State of Israel!
I would expect the Israeli government to support [the universities] in a much more substantial way. Now, you have to explain these things. I, as president, would be able to explain it very well, both to the government and the Finance Ministry: Overall, we need to make people aspire to pursue, to march, to be led towards higher education.
Now, there has been a significant decrease in the past year in the number of kids choosing to take the [most challenging] five-point matriculation (bagrut) exam in math. There was a discussion in the Knesset about it a few days ago. It’s a 30 percent decrease… a veritable collapse. Those who don’t learn math at the five-point level have no chance of acquiring a high-income technological profession. They won’t be able to become IT professionals, engineers, scientists, doctors.
We need to ensure that talented students take the five-point matriculation exams in math, chemistry, physics, and English. English, as you know, is very important for interacting with the world. We have to make sure that these things happen.
Next, I would like to tell you that it is the man who makes the position. Me as president would not be like anybody else as president. Everyone does the job differently. I think we have an excellent president, Shimon Peres, who has an outstanding international reputation. He’s well-known around the world, he’s well-respected around the world, and he radiates positively on Israel.
I’m not Peres. I have a completely different agenda. However, I think I’m worthy of stepping into his big shoes, certainly when it comes to representing Israel abroad. I’ve been doing that for many years. In the last two and a half years, I’ve been doing it on a massive scale. I deliver 100 major lectures a year all over the world, all by invitation, with the organizers paying all my expenses. I’m very well-liked by Israeli embassies abroad. Sometimes, when I travel to a country and the [Israeli] ambassador knows that a function is to be held that evening, he will invite me, ask me to deliver an address and direct me to the podium to speak to the attendees. And I come.
In the last two and a half years I have met ten heads of state. Some of them I only met ceremonially, but with others I sat and spoke for a long time about various political issues or matters that they were interested in. Such was the case with the presidents of Croatia, Slovenia, Ecuador, and a host of other presidents. There were others like Obama that I met with only ceremonially, shook hands with. But with most of them I had conversations. The president of Kosovo, which Israel doesn’t recognize – you know, the Serbians are invaders, and Israel won’t recognize it. But she’s a nice woman overall…
‘Everyone wants to be able to make ends meet with the salary they earn, and even to have something left over at the end of the year for travel – maybe to Italy’
I think I can have an impact. Look, I place my reputation and international prestige in the service of the State of Israel.
So that’s it, that’s what drives me: I want my children and grandchildren and my great-grandchildren to want to live here, in this country. I want living here to be pleasant for them, and I believe I have the ability to bring about change in a number of very important and vital areas. I will be a proactive president, but not a confrontational one. I want to work with the government. If there is any way I can assist the government on the policy issue of the peace talks, I will happily make myself available in order to move this very important matter forward.
But not to lead the peacemaking process?
Of course not! That is the prime minister’s job. I’m not going to lead any diplomatic process. I’ll gladly help, but I don’t intend to lead it, and I won’t put my own agenda at the top of the [state’s] priority list. I believe it’s not right for a president to do that. But on domestic, internal Israeli issues – look, I’m looking for the common denominator. What is the common denominator? Everyone wants better education for their kids. Everyone wants a higher salary. Everyone wants to be able to make ends meet with the salary they earn, and even to have something left over at the end of the year for travel – maybe to Italy.
Turning to religion, a very sensitive subject both domestically and between Israeli and Diaspora Jewry. Do you have any expertise in this subject?
Look, I believe that every Jew can define himself as he sees fit. I don’t think an ultra-Orthodox Jew is any better than a Conservative Jew, or a Reform Jew, or a totally secular Jew. If someone defines himself as Jewish, whether or not he is Israeli, and ensures that the next generation is Jewish, that’s exactly what we need.
But that’s not how it works in the State of Israel (where there is an Orthodox monopoly on life-cycle events). So that’s a political statement of sorts.
I don’t think so. It’s a social rather than a political observation. Look, you can make any topic political. Once it’s discussed in the public sphere, it becomes political. Well, I’ll do my utmost to avoid controversy. I’m looking for what unifies the people. I want it that when people turn on the TV and see me appear as president of the country, they’ll say, “How wonderful That’s us. There we are.”
‘Wasn’t Katzir better than Katsav?’
I want our children to be better educated, more knowledgeable, more moderate, calmer, more sociable.
You are an out-of-house candidate. People might say, we already had a president who wasn’t a political veteran and that didn’t turn out too well, and that you have to have extensive political experience to make that transition…
Of course that’s been said to me. Look at [first-time MKs, ministers and party leaders] Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid. What political experience did they have [before they got elected]?
But they’re not running for the presidency.
Look, there are people whose characteristics make them very well suited to the presidency, even if they don’t have experience. There are people who were elected president and their personal attributes were unsuitable to begin with, even though they might have had ample political experience. Is that what matters most? What does it have to do with anything? Wasn’t (fourth president, biophysicist Ephraim) Katzir better than (eighth president Moshe) Katsav (currently in jail for rape)? It’s just inconsequential nonsense. Ultimately you need a person with vision, which I am, with a clear idea of where we want to go, with enough cultured behavior running through his veins.
‘I speak with the people of Israel more than all the MKs. I take the train, you know? I sit and talk to people’
I don’t need to learn these things, I don’t need to learn how to talk to people. I talk to people from all over the world and to everyone in Israel. I speak with the people of Israel more than all the MKs. I take the train, you know? I sit and talk to people. I don’t have my own driver, and I take my own car very rarely. I like riding the train, I like meeting the people. I purchase a ticket for a reserved seat, and we sit quietly and talk. I am given a random ticket, without knowing who I’ll be sitting next to. So I sit and talk to them. By the way, the public’s warmth towards me is fantastic.
So you decided to run. It wasn’t easy to get the endorsements…
“It wasn’t easy” is an understatement. It was difficult to get the signatures. Not just for me, but for most of the other candidates, except for Rivlin and Fuad (Ben-Eliezer) and perhaps Sheetrit, who was immediately backed by [party leader] Tzipi Livni.
By the way, an MK only needs nine endorsements (because he can endorse his own candidacy).
Yes, it was slightly harder for you. How did that feel — a serious candidate, with a global reputation, liked by the public, and you had so much trouble getting the 10 endorsements?
Those who make a statement by openly endorsing me have different considerations than those who vote behind a screen. Every man has to face his conscience.
So you don’t see it as an indication of things to come on June 10?
Of sparse support? Absolutely not. Before you came in, a very respected MK was sitting where you are now. And we had a very serious and meaningful conversation. I don’t know if he will support me or not, but at least… Look, several MKs came up to me, some of the leading MKs in this house, and said to me, “Now that you have the 10 signatures, let’s talk.”
Previously, they didn’t know what would happen. “What if we support you and you are booted out of the race? Everyone will mock us.” Now they say, “Now that you have ten signatures, let’s talk.” And they do it with big smiles.
You speak as if you know you are going to become president.
Based on what?
Based on broad support from MKs behind the screen (of the voting booth). And indications I have received that this is what will happen.
‘I certainly don’t think there is someone who can better represent the State of Israel in front of the spearheads of the delegitimization campaign against Israel, which originates in the universities’
You mean that in two weeks I will say ‘oh, he was right’?
I hope so! I’m not given to fantasizing, I calculate. I hope that it will happen. It should happen. If I fail big-time, I’ll be very surprised.
How would you define failure?
If I don’t reach the second-round run-off (between the two leading candidates, if nobody gets over 50% in the first round). I hope that won’t happen.
Do you believe you are more worthy than the other candidates?
Yes. I respect them all, I’m not belittling their capabilities. When I meet them in the Knesset, we sit together quite amicably. We also knew each other before [the presidential race] – it’s not that we just met yesterday morning. More than that, I’m genuinely fond of some of the candidates. But I don’t think there is anyone among them of whom the citizens of Israel could be more proud, in terms of their activities within Israel, than myself. I don’t think any of them are more active than I am. And I certainly don’t think there is someone who can better represent the State of Israel in front of the spearheads of the delegitimization campaign against Israel, which originates in the universities.
I appear at those universities and I tell those people, “What you are doing is wrong. You are saying things that are just not true. Israel is a functioning democracy. There’s no such thing as apartheid. I don’t even know what this combination of letters means. Of course not! The only place in the Middle East where Arabs enjoy full equality and democracy is the State of Israel.”
The demonization grew out of the Palestinian aspect….
I get asked two kinds of questions: about the Arab Israelis, and about the Palestinians. Not everybody knows the difference …
About Arab Israelis, let me tell you an anecdote. I was in Lund, a city in southern Sweden. I delivered a lecture there. I delivered lectures in every university in Sweden … In Lund, there was a great crowd, a full house, with people standing wherever there was room just to hear me speak. One said, “What’s going on with your Arabs there? What’s happening?” And I said, “Thank you very much for asking me. Now tell me, do you have minorities in Sweden?” They said, “Yes, a Finnish minority.” I said, “How big.” They said, “About 10 percent.” I said, “Is Finnish an official language in Sweden?” They said, “Of course not.” I said, “We have a 20 percent Arab minority, and Arabic is an official language, even though all the Israeli Arabs speak Hebrew.” I said, Do you have affirmative action programs for your minorities in education, for advancement of women’s rights?” They said, “No.” I said, “We do. And we ensure full equality… An Arab judge, Salim Jubran, put the president of the State of Israel [Katsav] in prison,” I said to them.
As for the Palestinians, I tell them, “Look. The matter is being handled by the Israeli government. I don’t delve into matters of war and peace. That is the government’s role, and I will support my government.”
The prime minister didn’t even bother to respond to your letter…
Well, he must have been busy… I’ll have to meet and speak with him, which I will happily do. We know each other, we aren’t strangers. He knows me well, I know him well.
Absolutely. We have mutual respect for one another.