Could There Be an Arab-Israeli President? Yes, but Not Just Yet

Amid the enmity and mistrust, such a figure would need the wisdom of Solomon and the altruism of Mandela.

The list of candidates for Israel’s presidency is still open. Could an Arab run? If so, would a member of a minority be able to gather 10 MKs' signatures to back the candidacy? And if that candidate runs, would the number of supporters in a secret ballot surprise us?

There is of course no constitutional reason that a non-Jew cannot be elected president, though there have been legal attempts to prevent that from happening. These attempts have generated a sharp debate.

On the eve of the UN vote for the partition plan in the fall of 1947, a special committee drew up a constitution for the nascent Jewish state. A member of that committee, the jurist Zerah Warhaftig of the Hapoel Hamizrachi movement and a future religious affairs minister, proposed that the law stipulate that only a Jew could be president. Warhaftig’s reasoning: “The very fact that the state is called Jewish requires that this be conveyed symbolically, at the least in this legal pledge.”

Warhaftig’s proposal drew many responses for and against. Sephardi Chief Rabbi Meir Hai Uziel staunchly supported the notion that the president must be Jewish, “and not a convert whose mother isn’t Jewish.” But David Ben-Gurion, then chairman of the Jewish Agency, pledged full equality to all Israel’s citizens. “Any citizen – Jew, Arab or other – can be elected president of the state,” he declared.

Ben-Gurion’s statement drew fire from Rabbi Meir Berlin, editor of the newspaper identified with the Mizrachi and National Religious Party, Hatzofeh. In an article entitled “An open question to Mr. Ben-Gurion,” he wrote: “Who made you the legislator?!” Berlin gave the example of the British monarchy, where only a member of the Anglican Church can be the nation’s sovereign.

Four days after the UN vote, Ben-Gurion responded in a speech: “Now, as we are about to establish a state, it must be remembered that it will not be a Jewish state, it will be a state of all its citizens. It will be a Jewish state only for aliyah and settlement – all citizens will be equal."

According to Ben-Gurion, "A constitution that would prevent an Arab from being president is inconceivable. Rabbi Berlin has quoted so many verses against me for nothing. Any citizen can be elected president of the state, and if a majority is found to elect an Arab president, there will be no discrimination in the Jewish state. I suppose that it will also not be called Jewish State.”

Ostensibly, these are heretical statements: “not a Jewish state … state of all its citizens … Arab president.” Ben-Gurion? Indeed, this was the same Ben-Gurion whose voice was inscribed six months later by the tape recorder of history: “We hereby declare the establishment of a Jewish state in the Land of Israel, to be known as the State of Israel.”

To understand the storm over the Arab-president issue, we must remember that according to the partition plan approved by the UN General Assembly, the Jewish state was to have a very large Arab minority, about 500,000 citizens, and about 600,000 Jewish citizens. The election of an Arab president in a secret ballot, by the legislature or the public, was quite possible.

Not only Jewish members of the communist party might vote for an Arab candidate; some members of the left-wing Mapam party, who at the time supported a binational state, might do so. Warhaftig’s demand to constitutionally ensure that the head of state be Jewish, and the sharp debate it generated, were part of the demographic and political reality of the time.

In late February, the writer and Palmach veteran Nathan Shaham told the Hebrew edition of Haaretz: “I think that if the Arabs hadn’t attacked us [in 1948], we’d be a Levantine country today like Lebanon. We’d be living in peace throughout this territory.”

Maybe. But the good intentions of the founders of Zionism toward the image of the Jewish state – from Herzl (his book “Altneuland”), Weizmann (his comment “the Switzerland of the Middle East”) and Ben-Gurion – were wishful thinking, not expectations for the future.

The 1948 war was apparently inevitable and changed everything. Its outcome was the establishment of Israel and the Palestinian Nakba, the bitter and bloody conflict between two peoples burdened by traumas, mutual alienation, enmity and mistrust. On both sides, the depth of the conflict requires leaders with the wisdom of Solomon and the altruism of Mandela to build a strong bridge over troubled waters. Such leaders are uncommon in any generation, but their time will come.

Still, don’t worry: A non-Jew will not become Israel’s 10th president, or its 11th or 12th. At most, if an impressive and popular Arab figure challenges the Knesset and runs for president, he or she will enliven the race. That contest has only just begun, and it's dull already.

Ami Gluska, a lecturer in history and security policy, was the secretary, spokesman and military attaché to presidents Yitzhak Navon and Chaim Herzog.

Fritz Cohen