Even Though He Called Me Names

Shimon Peres branded me a good-for-nothing and has severed all contact with me since then, but I still support his candidacy for president.

There are dates in a journalist's life that are hard to forget, for good or for ill. For me, one of those dates is Tuesday morning, April 4, 2006. That was the day I wrote in my biweekly column that Israel has had six defense ministers without military experience.

On my list were David Ben-Gurion, Pinhas Lavon, Levi Eshkol, Shimon Peres, Menachem Begin and Moshe Arens. To each, I devoted a few words about his performance as defense minister. When I got to Peres, I wrote that he was one of the founders and builders of the settlements - an undeniable historic fact.

I had barely opened my eyes that morning when the telephone rang. Before I had a chance to say "Good morning, Shimon," this citizen of the world tore into me with such fury that his voice turned shrill. "You good-for-nothing! You son-of-a-gun," he shouted. "How dare you? That's all I did as a defense minister? You ought to be ashamed of yourself." After a few more pleasantries of that variety, he slammed the phone down.

Shimon Peres branded me a good-for-nothing and has severed all contact with me since then, but I still support his candidacy for president. After Ezer Weizman and Moshe Katsav sullied Israel's highest symbolic office, he is the man who can restore the presidency's lost honor.

The State of Israel is also the state of the Jewish people. The president, who is supposed to be above politics, is a figurehead, but one who has the power to invest Jewish solidarity with meaning.

As a man of vision with a record of impressive achievements behind him, I can understand why Peres was angry at me for bringing up his "defense-oriented" past. This man of peace and architect of the Oslo Accords does not like to be reminded of the days when he played the hawk to Yitzhak Rabin's dove. As Rabin's defense minister, he was the one who pushed to settle the occupied territories and establish Kadum, driving Rabin up a wall and earning the immortal sobriquet "the tireless schemer."

Peres was Ben-Gurion's right-hand man when it came to building the reactor in Dimona and creating the infrastructure for purchasing arms from France at a time when Israel was under embargo.

Over the last 20 years, Peres has become a man of the world. His English has improved immeasurably, and he has learned that France is not the center of the universe. Everywhere he goes - and the man is a nonstop traveler - world leaders knock on his door and make much of him. His rhetorical skills are stunning, his speeches always original and knowledgeable.

As a man of action, Peres was tops. As a politician, he was considered a schemer, but also a loser. He has long been the butt of jibes and jokes. In the eyes of the world, however, Peres has become Israel's most valued "tribal elder," regardless of his ridiculous portrayal in political spoofs like "What a Wonderful Country."

The crux of the problem is that no criteria have ever been established for the office of president. I am not so sure that the job must always go to political has-beens who get there by wheeling and dealing. I can name at least a dozen people outside the political arena - intellectuals, scientists, judges (Aharon Barak, for instance) - who could be president. After the establishment of the state, Ben-Gurion offered the presidency to Albert Einstein. If he had agreed, maybe second-rate politicos would never sit in the President's Residence.

Now that we are at a stage where the presidency as an institution is in need of rehabilitation - maybe rescue is more like it - the job fits Peres like a glove. He is the hands-down winner in the opinion polls, which goes to show that the public is tired of the wheeling and dealing. People are tired of the presidency being used as a pawn in the political game.

If Peres had not been screwed in the last election, we would now have a dignified elderly statesman as our president instead of a suspected serial rapist.

Peres's ultimatum - revising the law so that the president is elected in an open ballot - is understandable from his perspective. Peres has been burned too many times in his career by colleagues who promised to vote for him and broke their word, for him not to harbor an obsessive fear of secret ballots.

But even if he is right, laws should not be changed ad personam. Peres has nothing to fear from a secret ballot. After the trauma of a president who may be indicted on charges of rape and sexual harassment, Peres does not need that kind of guarantee. Despite his venerable old age, or maybe because of it, he is the right man, at the right time, to be the next president of Israel.