Shimon Peres: The Last President of Israel

For decades, Israel has been stuck with presidents who have no real authority or power; Shimon Peres is the sole exception – and he is a tough act to follow.

As you read these words, hundreds of great and good people around the world are packing their bags and boarding planes on their way to face tomorrow. Yes, I know it sounds like a terrible cliche − it is a terrible cliche − but that is what they are supposed to be doing next week in Jerusalem at Shimon Peres’ fifth presidential conference “Facing Tomorrow.”

I’m trying very hard not to be cynical here, but I was at the first of these conferences, five years ago, and since then I have faced a lot of tomorrows and none of the fine words and lofty visions presented by any of the star speakers, nor any of the projects that Peres’ team promised would be launched from the conference’s workshops, seem to have materialized.

Not that I’m surprised. Conferences rarely achieve anything, whether they are for doctors mainly intent on improving their golf handicaps or getting in time on the slopes, for academics who need to rack up attendance points and present papers to reach the next rung on the long ladder to a professorship or for diplomats, politicians and financiers mingling at cocktail receptions and running the world.

They don’t really need the conference to improve their healing skills, discover new insights in their field of research or strengthen global domination. These conferences are simply another way to take a paid vacation, do a bit of networking between all the drinking and eating and basking in the smug feeling of entitlement of belonging to a select group of people who wear laminated ID tags around their necks and the distinction of being a Bilderberger, an Aspenite or a member of the World Economic Forum. Very occasionally a useful contact is made or something of value learned, but modern communication methods and cheap air travel could have enabled these meetings to take place anyway, and the meager returns from the conference hardly compensate for the lengthy absence from real work.

But that’s OK, after all conferences are a mega-billion industry and there’s no reason Jerusalem shouldn’t get a tiny slice of this pie. If anyone deserves his own conference it is President Shimon Peres, who will also be celebrating his 90th birthday ‏(which is actually in August‏). And if we didn’t have the Peres conference, we wouldn’t have had the ridiculous farce of Prof. Stephen Hawking’s faux boycott of Israel.

I wonder, though, whether the delegates congregating in Jerusalem’s rather dilapidated International Convention Center will actually be thinking of the host’s tomorrow.

Plans have yet to be announced for a “Facing Tomorrow 2014.” If it does take place it will be a few weeks before Peres’ 7-year term ends, and there is no potential successor who could draw the sponsorship or the stellar guest list needed to hold such an event.

A glance at the list of tired and failed old politicians who have been mentioned as possible presidential candidates leaves one deeply underwhelmed.

MKs Reuven “Ruby” Rivlin and Benjamin “Fuad” Ben-Eliezer are jovial old-timers, but hardly statesmen. Former Foreign Minister David Levy has been out of national affairs for so long that an entire generation has grown up without ever hearing about his egotistical tantrums.

Ex-MK Dalia Itzik wants to be Israel’s first female president, and Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau thinks the next president should be a rabbi, but both of them have entire dressing rooms full of skeletons. The memory of the two previous presidents who were forced to resign in disgrace − Ezer Weizman, for allegedly accepting and failing to report cash from a mysterious tycoon, and Moshe Katsav, for raping a female subordinate − should prevent the election of anyone who will provide ample fodder for investigative reporters.

Haaretz’s senior political commentator, Yossi Verter, reported a few weeks ago that some Knesset members are discussing the possibility of extending Peres’ term by a few years, as part of a master plan that has Benjamin Netanyahu moving into the President’s Residence, with Sara, after he completes his third term as prime minister.

Netanyahu has denied the rumors, and in any case he probably couldn’t muster the Knesset votes to pass the amendment that extending Peres’ tenure would require. Israel’s political establishment will waste much of the next year on dirty races for the exalted posts of president and of chief rabbi − there are two, one Ashkenazi and the other Sephardi. I have already explained here why the chief rabbi position has no real national or spiritual significance, and find it hard not to reach a similar conclusion regarding the presidency.

Not that Peres, his conferences aside, has been a useless president. Quite the opposite. During the chaotic premierships of Ehud Olmert and Netanyahu, Peres was often the only voice of reason to maintain some stability in the upper reaches of the national hierarchy, counseling frustrated generals, intelligence chiefs and senior civil servants and indefatigably traveling the world as Israel’s super-diplomat-in-chief when its foreign minister was hardly a desired guest in the world’s respectable capitals.

When the history of this decade is written one can hope Peres will receive due credit for reining in disastrous schemes, chief among them Netanyahu and former Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s plans to bomb Iran. I’m not sure, however, we should be grateful to him for the achievement most often mentioned, “returning a sense of decorum to the presidency” after the mega-scandals of Weizman and Katsav. Peres has done that, but he also set a standard no successor can hope to meet.

Do Israel or the Jewish world need a president? The position was created by David Ben-Gurion to get the Zionist movement’s elder statesman Chaim Weizmann ‏(Ezer’s uncle‏) out of the way. Weizmann complained, “the only place I can stick my nose in is my handkerchief” and died on the job after less than four years. Ever since we have been stuck with a president without any real authority or powers, a national host holding events at his pleasant residence and charged with filling that home with his own personality and experience.

Peres was the sole exception. After a divisive and controversial six decades in politics he suddenly won the national popularity that eluded him throughout his career and proved to be a unique, unifying president with real influence. He was the first real president of Israel, and will probably be the last. 

Olivier Fitoussi