Benjamin “Fuad” Ben-Eliezer is one of the smartest politicians in Israel. Not sly, or bright. Smart. The gap between this fact and his image – for example, the way he is depicted in the satirical show “Eretz Nehederet” (“Wonderful Country”) – is no coincidence. Amir Peretz received a similar identity: that of the total idiot. In today’s Israel, which is becoming increasingly bigoted and increasingly polarized, ethnic gaps and stereotypes are only becoming more extreme. One’s name and place of birth are not a reason to become president, of course, but they carry significant symbolic weight.
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Contrary to conventional wisdom, if the president of Israel has a function, it is primarily a political one. The fact that it is the president who assigns the task of forming a government to one of the candidates is not inconsequential. One of the most notable acts ever performed by an Israeli president – President Yitzhak Navon’s push to appoint a government commission of inquiry after the September 1982 massacre in the Sabra and Chatila refugee camps – was a political act. So too was the formation of the unity government in 1984, when, after a tied election, President Chaim Herzog gave Shimon Peres the first opportunity to put together a coalition. And so too were President Ezer Weizman’s peace efforts during Benjamin Netanyahu’s first government and Peres’ efforts to avoid a war with Iran. The presidency is a political position in every way.
As such, the Israeli center-left has a clear interest in seeing one of its members chosen for the post. Especially in light of the critical period we are entering vis-à-vis the Palestinians, the Arab world and the settlers. In each of these issues, Ben-Eliezer’s heart is in the right place. His being in the Labor Party adds to this. Only Labor can give rise to an alternative to Netanyahu’s right-wing government. Gaining the presidency would give the party, and the entire center-left bloc, an important shot in the arm toward this goal.
The fact that the president would be Ben-Eliezer certainly would not hurt Labor – which has struggled to shake off its Ashkenazi image – in its effort to gather around it a broad alternative. A broad alternative without which Israel’s decline into the racist, antidemocratic right will be irreversible.
It is clear that among the candidates for president, retired Supreme Court Justice Dalia Dorner is a worthy choice. Although she has not made her political views known, it would seem that she is not far from the center-left, certainly in her positions on democracy. Her being a woman, like Ben-Eliezer’s being Mizrahi, is an important advantage in today’s increasingly bigoted and sexist Israel.
But in order to be president, one must first of all be elected. The center-left has just 32 votes in the current Knesset. Even if everyone is brought on board – a rare event – that still leaves 29 more votes that must be drummed up from the ultra-Orthodox parties in the opposition, from centrist parties in the coalition and from the ruling right. Even if Dorner were to collect the 10 signatures needed to run, her chances of gathering such broad support from the Haredi and right-wing parties are not very good. For many reasons, Ben-Eliezer has a decent chance of being able to do so.
His extensive ties with countries in the region are very important, particularly in light of Israel’s increasing tendency toward self-isolation, with a policy of cutting itself off from the region that is ostensibly its home. In these circumstances, the ability to maintain relations with Israel through the presidency is invaluable.
The sense of sourness in certain center-left circles over Ben-Eliezer’s candidacy is one of the reasons that, despite having comparable electoral weight with the right, the center-left’s influence in recent decades has been negligible. It needs to rediscover the ability with which the center-left built Israel, the ability to come together, to encourage a sense of identification, to work toward a common goal while turning criticism outward first of all, for the sake of even slight progress toward the goal of returning the center-left to power.
Ben-Eliezer would probably make a good president. His political skills, together with his age and his experience, could enable him to open the President’s Residence, in accordance with the neglected values of Labor, to Arabs, people from Israel’s social and geographic periphery, and to all those who are not part of the present capitalist-rightist-settler government.