Nobel laureate Shechtman able to enter presidential race

Nobel laureate Shechtman able to enter presidential race

World-renowned chemist obtains tenth required endorsement from an unexpected quarter

Yifa Yaakov is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

Dan Shechtman, winner of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, attends a meeting of the Science and Technology committee in the Knesset, February 2014. (photo credit: Flash90)
Dan Shechtman, winner of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, attends a meeting of the Science and Technology committee in the Knesset, February 2014. (photo credit: Flash90)

Nobel laureate Dan Shechtman, who indicated in January that he was eyeing the presidency, appears to finally be a contender in the race after unexpectedly winning a pledge of support from the required ten MKs on Sunday, with the tenth endorsement coming from an unlikely source.

A candidate for president must have the signatures of 10 MKs to run. While Shechtman has only obtained seven signatures, he has three promises of support from MKs who have yet to formally sign. The tenth MK, who announced his support on Sunday morning, must have come as a surprise for the erstwhile candidate: MK Moshe Feiglin (Likud) had said he would not vote for the world-renowned scientist. But this week, he announced that he had changed his mind, saying it was “inconceivable” that Shechtman would not be able to run.

On Sunday morning, Feiglin sent out a statement explaining his change of heart.

“I don’t intend to vote for Prof. Shechtman,” he said. “But when I heard he wasn’t able to secure more than 9 signatures, I called him up and told him that I would sign for him even though I wouldn’t vote for him. It is inconceivable that a Nobel Prize laureate should not be able to run for president in Israel.”

Likud Knesset member Moshe Feiglin (photo credit: Kobi Gideon/Flash90)
Likud Knesset member Moshe Feiglin (photo credit: Kobi Gideon/Flash90)

A poll conducted by Channel 2 last week showed Shechtman was one of the leading contenders for the position, second only to Likud MK Reuven Rivlin. Twenty-nine percent of the public said Rivlin was best suited to be president, while 19 percent chose Shechtman. Labor’s veteran MK Binyamin Ben-Eliezer trailed behind with 10%, with former Supreme Court jusice Dalia Dorner and Hatnua MK Meir Sheetrit not far behind with 8% and 6%, respectively. Former Kadima MK Dalia Itzik, who, like Shechtman, recently managed to secure 10 votes, was chosen by only 2 percent of the public.

Shechtman, who received the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 2011, announced that he was seeking the presidency in a January interview on Channel 1.

“I think I can change things for the better in this country,” he said. “I’m doing it now as well, in many areas, mostly in education, higher education and technological entrepreneurship. But I think I could do a lot more from a presidential position.”

Shechtman, known for his work in chemistry and material sciences, said becoming president would enable him to carry out his vision for improving the country’s future.

“I want to do good for the citizens of Israel. There is much to be done in that regard,” he said.

“I’m a Zionist. I want to nurture a generation of social individuals who see the needs of others,” he continued. “If you’re president, and especially if you are well-liked by the public, people listen to you.”

Shechtman added that if he were chosen to fill the position, he would remain politically unaffiliated, focusing mostly on domestic issues and less on politics and policy.

“A president should look for what binds the people together rather than what drives them apart. As soon as you are identified with one side of the political map, you are no longer everybody’s president,” he said.

The Nobel laureate also praised incumbent President Shimon Peres for his work.

“I appreciate him very much,” Shechtman said. “He has earned great standing around the world, and I think he’s a smart man,” he said.

Peres’s successor — Israel’s tenth president — will be chosen by the Knesset by secret ballot on June 10. Peres’s seven-year term expires July 27.

The president is chosen by the 120 Knesset members, who tend to elect one of their own for the symbolic but resonant position. Candidates include former Knesset speaker Rivlin (Likud), former defense minister Ben-Eliezer (Labor), former finance minister MK Sheetrit (Hatnua), former Supreme Court justice Dorner, and former Knesset speaker Itzik, as well as American-Israeli solar energy entrepreneur Yosef Abramowitz.

Shechtman was the tenth Israeli to receive a Nobel. His discovery of quasicrystals, made in 1982, “fundamentally altered how chemists conceive of solid matter,” according to the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, which awarded him the prize for the discovery in 2011.

But the discovery faced ridicule and disbelief among scientists. “For a long time it was me against the world,” Shechtman once said.

“I was a subject of ridicule and lectures about the basics of crystallography. The leader of the opposition to my findings was the two-time Nobel Laureate Linus Pauling, the idol of the American Chemical Society and one of the most famous scientists in the world.”

Shechtman was eventually vindicated, with his discovery playing a key role in the development of important industrial and commercial materials.

Haviv Rettig Gur contributed to this report.

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