Who do you think could be relied upon to find the right tone and sentiments when visiting an Israeli family that has just lost a child in war or to an act of terrorism? Who would have the finesse to smooth over some unexpected snafu during a high profile diplomatic visit? Who would know instinctively what to say and what to do if confronted, as the incumbent was in Davos five years ago, by a ranting, raging, rival regional leader? Who might you look up to as an astute, avuncular unifying figure to symbolically represent the nation?
On June 10, our 120 members of parliament will, in secret ballot, choose a successor to President Shimon Peres. By no means a consensual figure when he took up the post seven years ago, Peres proved to be just the man for the moments described above — a hitherto divisive figure who so confounded his critics that even many of his most hawkish political opponents readily acknowledge the value his presence at Beit Hanassi has brought Israel. Imagine, with his predecessor serving time for rape, how the last-minute bid by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to abolish the presidency might have been received had Peres not revitalized the office. Yes, Mr. Prime Minister, our legislators would have chorused as one, please rid us of this turbulent presidency.
But having so ignominiously and predictably failed in his ill-advised, eleventh-hour effort to scrap an office to which the age-defying Peres has brought fresh luster, Netanyahu inexplicably now seems intent on compounding his errors. He’s quite right to shake his head in despair when he looks at the list of ostensibly realistic candidates. What a collective downer they are — uninspiring politicians who have either passed their prime or never had one. His choice is complicated by the fact that one of them — Likud frontrunner Reuven Rivlin — both is an international liability because of his opposition to Palestinian statehood and apparently insulted his wife. Another — fellow Likudnik Silvan Shalom — was recently hit by unproven allegations of sexual assault. A third — Labor’s Binyamin Ben-Eliezer — is a staunch political opponent. It’s no great wonder that the prime minister would happily visit a plague upon all of their houses.
But, hey, he is the prime minister, remember? Elected to lead. What’s to stop Netanyahu from thinking outside the box, or more specifically from searching outside the Knesset? Only his own timidity. According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, Israel’s population on Independence Day five weeks ago stood at 8,180,000. Is there really no one among all those other Israelis — those 8,179,880 Israelis who don’t sit in parliament — who would make a better president?
How about a rabbi or a rabbanit, an ex-politician or a high-tech guru, a Zionist icon or a salt-of-Israel novelist, an ex-diplomat, military or intelligence chief? One ex-judge (Dalia Dorner) and a Nobel laureate (Dan Shechtman) have already thrown their hats into the ring. Who do you think might fit the bill? And can we afford to dismiss such candidates when the “realistic” alternatives are so unpalatable?
The astute political analysts suggest that Netanyahu’s concerns over a president Rivlin, and his apparent preference for a president Shalom who would owe him big-time for the post, revolve around the fear that one day, after a tight general election, he might have to rely on the president’s discretion to reappoint him prime minister.
But a scenario in which a president would be called upon to make some kind of non-clear-cut, narrow judgment call over who has the best shot at forming a government is extremely remote. (The 2009 election was no such situation; it was crystal clear that 27-seat Likud head Netanyahu had a better chance than 28-seat Kadima leader Tzipi Livni of building a coalition, and Peres could not possibly have charged her with the task.) And an adventurous initiative by Netanyahu to recommend a fresh, unexpected candidate is just the kind of move that might revive his own dwindling popularity, show a decisiveness he has rarely displayed of late, and thus conceivably help spare him post-election jitters down the road.
So be bold, prime minister. You’ve already made clear your disdain for the office and the establishment candidates who seek to hold it. Give us a president you and we can be proud of, by casting your gaze beyond the confines of the Knesset. Ask yourself, when the pope visits next week, who you’d like to see standing alongside such esteemed foreign visitors after July 27, when President Peres is no longer the occupant of Beit Hanassi.