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Shimon Peres, who will be sworn in today as Israel's ninth president, has a rare opportunity to challenge the quip by Chaim Weizmann, Israel's first president, that the only place he is authorized to stick his nose is his handkerchief.

The law does not allow the president any independent say except in granting pardons to criminals and appointing an MK to form a government after an election. The president's mandatory roles that leave him no room for independent maneuvering include signing laws, receiving the credentials of new ambassadors, approving the appointments of judges and other civil servants, and signing foreign treaties.

The tradition that took root since Weizmann's time assigns the president only a symbolic function. All presidents avoided becoming involved in the running of the state and saw their role mostly as super -unifiers: fatherly figures that intervene during crises to calm the anger and narrow the divisions in Israeli society. They have usually avoided expressing their personal opinions on controversial national issues (with Ezer Weizman the exception). At most, the presidents accepted the government's call to leverage their post's prestige to call the hunger strikers to end their protest, or to act as the state's sympathetic ear where the citizens could voice their grievances.

So it is not surprising that in view of the legal and customary limitations, the presidents went out of their way to find activities that added interest to their lives in the gilded cage in Jerusalem. Yitzhak Ben-Zvi focused on his research in Jewish history and ethnology, Zalman Shazar promoted Chabad, Ephraim Katzir chose near anonymity, Yitzhak Navon developed a popular approach to the presidency, Chaim Herzog was more aloof, Ezer Weizman was identified with visits to bereaved families, and Moshe Katsav, it turns out, was busy fending off the aggressive passes of his female employees.

The activities each president chose did not cause any damage (except in Katsav's case), but they were also not really useful. The presidents accepted the role of figurine and fulfilled it, apparently quite happily. There is no other way to explain their desire for the role. The common citizen is entitled to sigh at the budgetary outlays that satisfy the caprices of the presidents and/or their wives (more than NIS 23 million annually). But this has not drawn any particular attention compared with other wastes in the public domain.

Shimon Peres takes over as president today. The man is elderly, experienced and well-honored. On the face of it, he is supposed to be immune, more than his predecessors, to the temptations of power and the pleasures of authority. The excellent women who accompany him have already put together a "hundred-day plan" with an impressive pace of activity: initiating national projects, fund-raising, international travel, tours of the country, supporting weak communities, and also - an undetermined diplomatic role. When the program is stripped of all its public relations glitz, the new president's agenda is similar to that of his predecessors (except Katsav): picking up the leftovers from the field of public service.

Instead of trying to collect the leftovers, the new president is invited to stand at the head of the Israeli peace camp and utilize his post's prestige to take energetic action toward resolving the conflict with the Palestinians. This way Peres will fulfill the wishes of a significant portion of the public, and also his own. He will stray from the tradition that sanctifies the political neutrality of the president, but he will work for its benefit and instill genuine substance to his post.

In no small way, Peres is responsible for the country's quagmire in the territories. His new role offers him a unique opportunity to correct that mistake. It is one thing for Peres to be at the head of a medium-sized party seeking an agreement with the Palestinians, and another to strive for such an end from the Office of the President.

The walls in Peres' former office are full of memorabilia and symbols of recognition from the various positions he has held in his life. Instead of filling the President's Office with new trophies, the result of ceremonial visits, Shimon Peres is called upon to receive the ultimate medal - the symbol of recognition by the state for his success in furthering peace.