Shimon Peres has six weeks left. Not six weeks left to live, of course - Peres, 90-years young, seems to be much healthier than many of his juniors - but in office.
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At the end of July, Israel’s 9th president will leave his official residence in Jerusalem and return to his Tel Aviv apartment, leaving president-elect Reuven Rivlin to enter the house he inhabited for the past seven years and make it his own.
Peres’ departure marks the end of a seven year term that saw him jet-set around the world, hold glitzy conferences filled with celebrity admirers and friends, and use his enormous and unparalleled gravitas to represent the prettier face of Israeli policy, while putting out numerous diplomatic fires with only the power of his charm.
Most of all, the last seven years saw Peres rehabilitate some of the stature the Israeli presidency lost after the disastrous term of his predecessor (and convicted rapist) Moshe Katsav, while simultaneously redefining what a president can say, or do, or what role the president plays in Israel’s public life.
Peres’ departure also signals the end of an almost 70-year old political career during which he held pretty much every major position in Israel’s political system. It also begs speculation about his life after July: will Peres, at age 90, finally retire from public life and settle into a life of book-writing and silent reflection? Might he go, implausibly, back into politics, defying his age?
Peres himself, characteristically, has been both absolutely clear and yet still somewhat vague about his post-presidency plans. Asked about it in an interview with the Wall Street Journal earlier this month, he cryptically said: “I am joining a new world. I think the world today is constructed differently now than it was before.”
Rather like the Vatican after the abdication Benedict XVI, Israel is faces an unusual question: what to do with a living “pope”? Even without political office, Peres is still Peres - outspoken, larger-than-life, avid proponent of peace and a two-state solution, an agenda that often pits him against Israel’s top political brass. What will be his role in Israeli politics when,for the first time in seven decades, he no longer serves an official function?
Since it is unlikely that Peres is willing to just sit idly by, here are the three major paths he might choose to follow.
The most unlikely: Retirement
Peres may be 90, but retirement is highly unlikely. Many leaders are able to retire peacefully after reaching old age, stepping out of the limelight in order to rest and devote more time to their families, but Peres will probably not be one of them. Not for him the George W. Bush route.
Still unlikely: Going back into politics
Back in 2012, months before the January 2013 elections, Tzipi Livni tried to talk him into running as leader of the center-left and challenge prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Peres, wisely, chose to stay put.
If the idea of a Peres political comeback seemed remote in 2012, it seems even more preposterous now. He may be young at heart but Peres is still 90 - already the oldest head of state in the world - and the next elections are (officially, in Israel you never know) three years away. Would Israelis vote for a 93-year-old prime minister? They had a hard-enough time voting for Peres when he was 70.
While he is a political animal at heart, Peres’ ambitions these days seem to be grounded in realism. According to a report in the New York Times, Peres has begun “to line up leaders looking to unseat Mr. Netanyahu”, and that seems to be a much more realistic path for Peres’ trajectory: serving as the Israeli left’s “supreme leader”, an unofficial beacon and political mediator and enabler - behind the scenes.
The most likely scenario: Peres will continue to be Peres
The most likely scenario is that Peres, post presidency, will just go on being Peres, doing what he has been doing for many years, president or not: writing books, appearing in international conferences, meeting with foreign heads of state, promoting peace and a two-state solution like it’s still 1993, returning to his Peres Center for Peace and probably following in the footsteps of his friend Bill Clinton, creating something similar to the Clinton Global Initiative (as he already did in recent years, in a way, with his President’s Conference).
Peres, after all, doesn’t really need to be president. He did all that well before he was president. None of his predecessors as president did any of those things, because traditionally Israel’s president does little outside of ceremonial functions. It was Peres that turned the presidency into a politically significant role.
Reuven Rivlin will most likely be a much more traditional president. Yet there is no successor to Shimon Peres. Not while he’s around. And he’s not going anywhere yet.