Shimon Peres was only 31 in 1954, the year he was appointed director-general of Israel’s Defense Ministry. When he retires from the presidency on July 27 of this year, he will leave behind him a legacy of 60 industrious years at the highest levels of Israeli public service.

Over those long decades, many of them spent at the right hand of Israel’s founding premier David Ben-Gurion, Peres was responsible for some of the defining decisions that ensured Israel’s survival and prosperity. He was the country’s arms procurer in its fledgling years, a founder of its alleged nuclear deterrent capabilities, the initiator of much of its now-vaunted defense industry, and, in his 70s, an architect of the peace efforts with the Palestinians.

More pointedly, Peres’s presidency is the last public role for a generation of nearly incalculable achievement. Military giants like the hard-nosed general-turned-peacemaker Yitzhak Rabin and the brilliant tactician Ariel Sharon; rabbis such as Ovadia Yosef, who understood that modern Israel was not just a political watershed, but would mark a turning point in the forging of a new Jewish identity; poets such as Yehuda Amichai who gave the ancient, clumsy Hebrew of tradition its modern, muscular simplicity — this was the generation that created much of what it now means to be Israeli: hewed a first-world economy out of desert and rock, built a homeland for a refugee people, and reclaimed a sense of national resilience out of the ashes of a century of death.

President Shimon Peres examines embryonic stem cells through a microscope during a presentation for him and British Prime Minister David Cameron from Dr. Sharona Even-Ram of the Hadassah medical Center about how stem cells can be used to treat Parkinson's disease. (Photo credit: Mark Neiman/GPO)

President Shimon Peres examines embryonic stem cells through a microscope during a presentation for him and British Prime Minister David Cameron from Dr. Sharona Even-Ram of the Hadassah medical Center about how stem cells can be used to treat Parkinson’s disease. (Photo credit: Mark Neiman/GPO)

Internationally known and admired like no other living Israeli leader, Peres, the once-divisive former Labor premier, has come to represent the themes that unite most Israelis — in his public rhetoric the prosperous, tech-savvy future of the “start-up nation,” and in the simple facts of his biography a narrative of uncomplicated heroism, unparalleled achievement and clarity of purpose. When he leaves the President’s Residence in two months’ time, shedding at once Israel’s highest post and the burdens of a lifetime of leadership, Peres will inevitably leave behind him a vacuum that is hard to measure, much less to fill.

And it is that sense of the waning of an age that constitutes the unspoken but defining fact driving the race to replace him.

Whose Israel?

The presidency has few real powers. Its main role is to represent and symbolize the Israeli people, both to themselves and to the outside world. For both audiences — to the world as the peacemaker of Oslo and an indefatigable spokesman for Israeli scientific and technological prowess, and to Israelis as a living remnant and witness from a heroic past — he remains a convincing symbol of Israel at its best.

So it is not surprising that the presidential race has become a kind of contest to inherit from Peres the most conspicuous symbol of idealized “Israeliness.”

Chemistry Nobel Prize winner Israeli scientist Daniel Shechtman speaks to media at a press conference in Jerusalem on October 09, 2011. (Photo by FLASH90)

Chemistry Nobel Prize winner Israeli scientist Daniel Shechtman speaks to media at a press conference in Jerusalem on October 09, 2011. (Photo by FLASH90)

The race is taking place in two distinct and largely unconnected arenas. A virtual race is underway between a handful of prominent Israelis whose chances for election by the 120 members of Knesset who can actually vote in the election are tenuous at best. Yet these Israelis are not daunted by the political realities. They are interviewed in the media, offer public speeches, open websites and Facebook groups supporting their candidacy and can boast activists, slogans, professionally designed logos and other paraphernalia of political campaigning.

Yet their goal is not simply to win, but to send a message, one encapsulated in their biographies.

In these individuals – the Nobel-winning chemist Dan Shechtman, a symbol of Israel as the innovative, indispensable start-up nation; the retired Supreme Court justice Dalia Dorner, representing the judicial (and self-styled moral) elite of a nation of lawyers (the Israel Courts Administration has found that Israel may have the world’s highest number of lawyers per capita); even American immigrant and Israeli solar energy entrepreneur Yosef Abramowitz, whose improbable efforts to join the race are being conducted in the name of defining Israel as “a renewable light unto the nations” — the public race for the presidency has become a kind of proxy competition over which elite can position its own vision of success as the idealized “Israeliness.”

In the mud

At the same time, there is the real race, the one conducted among actual voting MKs, a narrow- and bloody-minded affair between grizzled political operators currently spending hundreds of thousands of shekels on public relations firms and private investigators. It is this last elite, the political one, that controls the gate to the President’s Residence.

And the MKs’ race has been ugly indeed. A sexual assault accusation surfaced last month against the frontrunner, Energy and Water Minister Silvan Shalom. It was splashed for days across Israel’s front pages by his opponents, and quickly died away after no evidence of wrongdoing could be uncovered. Shalom may be innocent, but he was nevertheless so battered by the intense limelight and speculation that he is now out of the race.

In a similar incident just last week, one of the campaigns leaked to the media an old, secret court settlement between presidential candidate MK Meir Sheetrit (Hatnua) and a former housekeeper — again offering no evidence of wrongdoing.

Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, April 30, 2014, in Tel Aviv. (photo credit: AP/Dan Balilty)

Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, April 30, 2014, in Tel Aviv. (photo credit: AP/Dan Balilty)

This strategy has probably been adopted — in secret, of course — by most or all of the Knesset’s presidential hopefuls. Former defense minister and Labor’s current presidential candidate MK Binyamin Ben-Eliezer complained last week about the bitter atmosphere, telling a television news interviewer that private investigators were searching through decades-old records looking for damaging information on him. Other candidates, it should be noted, have pointed fingers at Ben-Eliezer himself for engaging in similar mud-seeking.

The race is surprisingly brutal, but it could hardly have been otherwise. The Knesset vote, slated for June 10, is a secret ballot, so the usual levers of political influence can have no effect here. An MK cannot be punished for voting against the wishes of his or her party leaders, or rewarded for their loyalty after the fact. Thus, though Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has spent weeks searching for a candidate to support, he now appears to be seriously considering supporting no one. He may be wary of exposing himself to his political enemies by lending his political weight to a candidate whose victory cannot be assured. Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman and Shas chairman MK Aryeh Deri, both of whom suffered embarrassing defeats for their candidates in municipal elections in October, appear to be making a similar calculation.

Once MKs can’t be pressured into voting for a candidate, the only option left is to scare them away from the other candidates. Thus, while respected, accomplished figures outside the Knesset are campaigning to represent Israelis’ best vision of themselves, the campaigns within the Knesset are more likely to attempt to scare MKs by raising the specter of Moshe Katsav-style revelations down the road.

Besides the mudslinging, there is another downside to the fact that the race is being conducted between politicians. The current frontrunner, Likud MK Reuven Rivlin, has faced criticism from fellow lawmakers over his past comments opposing a two-state peace deal with the Palestinians. While advocating one’s political views is an essential part of one’s duties as an MK, it can be a liability for a president, and can transform the race for the presidency into a hopelessly politicized affair.

Is it any wonder, then, that a Times of Israel poll in January found that the most popular choice for president, even among right-wing Israeli voters, remains Shimon Peres?

In a race for the country’s highest office, the nation-building achievements of Peres’s generation remain a touchstone of identity far more palpable and meaningful than either the elitist visions of Israel’s scientists or jurists, or the cutthroat betrayals and petty machinations that characterize its political class.