When the history of the bizarre and eventful 2014 race for Israel’s presidency is written, the oddest chapter will surely be the lobbying effort from Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to Nobel peace prize laureate Elie Wiesel, imploring, begging, and pressuring him to throw his hat in the ring.
For those who haven’t been following the saga, here’s a quick recap - upon current President Shimon Peres’ retirement, Netanyahu apparently surveyed the landscape and found nobody worthy to succeed him. At first he toyed with the idea of extending Peres’ term - an idea nixed by Peres - and even floated the concept of eliminating the office of President entirely - an idea nixed by practically the entire country. His big problem was his - and reportedly, his wife Sara’s - personal animus towards the candidate who was his party’s front runner - MK Reuven “Ruby” Rivlin - but inability to find a suitable alternative to back, particularly after the party’s other stalwart wannabe, Minister Silvan Shalom, was battling charges of sexual harassment.
The weekend papers in Israel told the story of how - before sucking it up, facing the inevitable and endorsing Rivlin while holding his nose - Netanyahu had made a desperate “Hail Mary” play. He decided to find a candidate that no one could oppose - Elie Wiesel. Wiesel’s account of their telephone conversations and persistence in the face of Wiesel’s polite refusal - telling him that his service as president would be “important for Israel and important for the Jewish people” is jaw-dropping.
“Failing to get the positive answer he wanted, he started putting pressure on me through mutual friends,” he said. “The pressure was heavy, but I know how to withstand pressure. One of the people who put pressure on me said, ‘Your father in Heaven will see you elected president of the State of Israel. Don’t you want him to be proud of you?’ But to say yes? To be the president of Israel? Oh, come on. That's not for me. I write books. I’m not cut out for that.”
Some might say that to use the specter of a father murdered by the Nazis to convince someone to do your political bidding is the very definition of chutzpah.
Most of the focus of Israeli political pundits has been, justifiably, on Netanyahu’s machinations and sheer gall - Wiesel said that Netanyahu assured him the presidency was his for the taking - "I have finalized it with everyone. Just say yes." - when it is clear he hadn’t even come close to “finalizing” anything.
But let’s stop a moment and ask ourselves: what if, in a moment of weakness or Jewish guilt or temporary insanity, this 86-year-old man, who is not an Israeli citizen, has never even lived in the state of Israel, and has devoted his entire life to writing and scholarship - he has authored 57 books - had agreed to pack his bags. What if the Prime Minister did as he promise to Wiesel, managed to bulldoze his choice through a Knesset vote into the President’s Mansion and become the ceremonial chief of the State of Israel? What would it say to the world to have a Romanian-born American Jew become the face of the Jewish state?
Yes, it is true that the request was not without historical precedent. In 1952, Abba Eban wrote a letter to Albert Einstein on the behalf of David Ben-Gurion asking him if he would become Israel’s second president. The approached was definitely classier than Netanyahu’s pressure tactics: “I am anxious for you to feel that the Prime Minister's question embodies the deepest respect which the Jewish people can repose in any of its sons. To this element of personal regard, we add the sentiment that Israel is a small State in its physical dimensions, but can rise to the level of greatness in the measure that it exemplifies the most elevated spiritual and intellectual traditions which the Jewish people has established through its best minds and hearts both in antiquity and in modern times. Our first President, as you know, taught us to see our destiny in these great perspectives, as you yourself have often exhorted us to do.”
That didn’t work, either. Like Wiesel, Einstein begged off, saying “I lack both the natural aptitude and the experience to deal properly with people and to exercise official functions .. even if advancing age was not making increasing inroads on my strength.”
But that was back in the state’s infancy - when the vast majority of Israelis were immigrants, and the whole process of choosing leaders was still taking shape, and there was no clear list of contenders, as is the case today. Asking a Diaspora Jew who had stature in the world to represent the state made sense.
But today? With the diverse field of candidates in this race, there was truly no excuse to look elsewhere - if Netanyahu so reviled Rivlin, but felt he couldn’t cross party lines and favor another political candidate - there were non-political alternatives Professor Dan Shechtman (he has a Nobel Prize, too) and former Supreme Court justice Dalia Dorner. Or if he loves America so much, he could have gone quirky and backed (relatively new) immigrant Yosef Abramowitz.
But Wiesel - though an amazing and inspiring figure, would have been a terrible choice for president even if he had done a wonderful job. The very fact of his presidency would have sent a message that the state of Israel, after 66 years of history and numerous accomplishments, had not been able to produce even one citizen worthy of representing it to the world.
We all owe a debt of gratitude to Wiesel for not letting that happen.
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