Let us imagine the opposite scenario. Shimon Peres stands surrounded by a throng of reporters at the Knesset, his face gray as a ghost, and announces in a weary voice: "The Knesset decided to back another candidate, a more worthy one. I congratulate Reuven Rivlin. I am looking forward..."
A nightmare, no? Aside from a few incorrigible meanies, nobody would want to see that horrid spectacle. Enough; been there, done that. We've bought Shimon Peres great injustice melodrama. Even Peres jokes don't do it for us anymore (and now is the time to drop them).
It was enough to see the look on the faces of Likud's top brass, who had just suffered a resounding political defeat: They seemed rather pleased, as though relieved. Like everyone, they too felt a need for a corrective experience, a good deed, one that would at once atone not only for the Katsav mistake of 2000, but also for all the rest of the miserable caprices that reduced Israeli politics and its institutions (starting with the presidency) to the lowest level.
An entire Knesset (with a few exceptions on the right) looked in the mirror yesterday and fell instantly in love with its new look, stately and sane. More than Peres needed his oasis, the Knesset needed its catharsis. At long last it felt like it was truly connecting with the public's secret desire, at least as reflected in polls and Reuven Adler's celebrity ads.
But the seemingly dignified ending only highlighted the ugly political process that preceded it. The three-way race for presidency mostly resembled a second-rate theatrical farce, whose stars are wheeler-dealer MKs who say one thing when they believe another, a pretend candidate chasing after her 15 minutes of fame, certified rumor mongers and bedroom gossips. In this twisted carnival atmosphere, it's no wonder Rivlin swallowed the telephone prank by one of the Peres impersonators, which found its way onto Channel 10 ("Cut me some slack, if I am not elected this time, there goes my life's work!). Until the purifying vote for Peres, anything could be said about him and even believed.
The rare consensus, 86 MKs, that lined up behind Peres concealed the political significance of his election. When Shelly Yachimovich voted for Rivlin ("it's a personal choice, not political") she wasn't thinking about the potential for political damage inherent in Israel's President's Residence. History teaches that a president from the opposition can be real trouble for the prime minister. Just as you cannot bet on Rivlin's statesmanlike decorum in the face of a decision by a Barak government (say) to evacuate historic parts of the land, so you clearly cannot count on Shimon Peres' statesmanlike decorum faced with the peace refuseniks of a Netanyahu government (for example).
Anyone familiar with Peres knows that the formal job definition won't stop him this time either, certainly not while he enjoys a new national stature and unprecedented international popularity. Even Ehud Olmert could soon regret Operation Peres. A wave of peace initiatives, conflict-resolution conferences and global projects is about to emanate from the residence of the ninth president, and wipe the smile off Olmert's face that has been there for the past two days.