An article that I published two days ago in The New York Times deals with Israel's race for the presidency. Unlike the US, in Israel the president does not have actual executive power and is mainly a ceremonial role. Still, Shimon Peres proved that, with the right person, the job can be meaningful and the contribution of the president to Israel can be of significance.
Can the candidates now under consideration succeed Peres, can they fill the big shoes he will be leaving behind him? I can't say I'm certain. The Knesset – the body which elects the president – seems to be looking inwardly, and seems to be insisting on keeping the job for a member of the political class and club.
Three candidates have officially announced their desire to become president, and a couple of more are mentioned as potential candidates but haven’t yet decided to enter the race. Two politicians have been in the running for a long time: former Knesset speaker Reuven Rivlin of the Likud Party, and former Minister of Defense and Labor Party leader Binyamin Ben-Eliezer… Another politician that might join them is Silvan Shalom. Political pundits see Mr. Shalom’s candidacy as strong… Other ex-politicians are also mentioned, like the former Foreign Minister David Levy, and the former Knesset speaker Dalia Itzik.
The third official candidate, Dan Schectman, stunned Israelis two weeks ago by coming out of nowhere and reminding them what’s at stake. Mr. Schectman received the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 2011, the tenth Israeli to be a Nobel Laureate… To have his name on the ballot he will need the support of at least 10 Knesset members — which he doesn’t yet have. What he does seem to have, though, is the growing support of the public… what they see in Mr. Schectman and don’t see in other candidates is the ability to be a representative of Israel’s sunny side: the Israel of science, of excellence, of high tech, of worldly success…
But it doesn't say the following:
- Politicians in the Knesset would be right to assert that the recent cry for a non-politician president reflects a sentiment that is dangerously populist. Thus, if a politician like Peres can be elevated to the post, he should probably be on top of the list. The question for me is whether the current political class has such a candidate to offer.
- My article doesn't endorse any specific candidate. First of all, because my endorsement means nothing. Secondly, because I'm not yet certain if Schectman is for real – namely, if he is fit for the job. Obviously, a president needs more than name recognition, and one of the disadvantages of having someone like Schectman enter the race at this late stage is that we don't truly know him. Electing him could be brilliant, or a disaster. A thorough investigation of his character and beliefs must happen before a vote.
- So Schectamn, for me, much more than being the right candidate – which he might or might not be – has done a great service to Israel by opening up this race and putting on the table the possibility of having as president someone that isn't one of the two-three obvious politician-candidates. If the point is taken, and Israel will be seriously looking at other candidates, there are several people that could be considered for the non-politician president's job other than Schectman. My article mentions two of them: Natan Sharansky and Adina Bar Shalom.
- Chances are that the politicians will do what politicians usually do – so don't raise your hopes too high.
- In the meantime, some of them have been calling for the elimination of the president's office. An MK from HabayitHayehudi proposed legislation today that will cancel the position, since it’s "wasteful and unnecessary". He is already supported by some pundits and other politicians. And he might be right – or wrong. Right: because we can probably do without a president. Wrong: because Peres proved that with the right person the president can play a meaningful role. It seems that, in many ways, this Knesset Member and his friends are the ones that can determine if the position is "wasteful and unnecessary" or not.
- One thing is for sure: This Knesset Member is not a serious legislator and this suggestion is not a serious proposition. Canceling the role of the president and changing Israel's constitutional structure would require a more thorough examination – one that isn't tailored just for getting a headline in tomorrow's paper.