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Why Israel’s Inconsequential Presidential Race Is So Pitiful

by Shmuel Rosner

May 26, 2014 | 3:35 am

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Shimon Peres and Reuven Rivlin attend a ceremony marking Jerusalem Day in Jerusalem, May 21, 2009. Photo by REUTERS/Yin Bogu

This isn't a happy race. Tonight the candidates will begin filing their paperwork, and on June 10th the Israeli Knesset is going to elect a new president to succeed Shimon Peres. Alas, no one is under the illusion that the result will be satisfactory. The leading candidate, Likud politician Reuven Rivlin, is popular with the public, but the Prime Minister is fighting nail and tooth to prevent him from getting elected – a recipe for future trouble if Rivlin is elevated to the post. The second most popular candidate, Nobel Laureate Prof. Dan Schechtman, barely found 10 MK's, the necessary quorum, to sign the document that enables him to run. Some of his signatories say publically that they do not intend to vote for him. A third candidate, Labor politician Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, is struggling to collect the votes that will make him a viable contender against Rivlin. A fourth candidate, Labor and Kadima former politician Dalia Itzik, is hoping to be the dark horse – the come-from-behind solution to the Netanyahu-Rivlin problem.

These are some of most noticeable trees in our presidential forest. There is also Minister Silvan Shalom, the promising candidate of yester-week, and former Minister David Levy, the promising meteor for less than 48 hours, and former High Court Justice Dalia Dorner, who is also having trouble finding the votes that will formally allow her to run.  The trees are many, yet the forest is hardly green. Hardly tempting. A Last minute attempt to cancel the office of the presidency altogether might have been more tempting – if it would not be a vulgar attempt by Netanyahu to block Rivlin at whatever cost. The idea to let Peres stay might have been tempting, but Peres, wisely, dismissed it promptly. Why end a successful and dignifying term as President in such a clumsy way?

The critics of the presidency are right: Israel can do without a President. Yet it can also do with a Presidency. The critics are right: The presidency is expensive. Yet the cost should not be considered without weighing it against the possible benefit. The cost of President Peres is easily defensible. The cost of President Katzav – indefensible.

In other words: unlike many official offices that we have to have – a Defense Ministry, a Finance Ministry, a Speaker of the Knesset, a High Court – the office of the Presidency is not essential. It is an office with few legal obligations and even less responsibilities. It is an office in which much depends on one factor, and one factor alone: the personality that is elected to make something out of a relatively empty office. Thus, the question of whether Israel does or doesn't need a president leads to a tautology: Israel needs a worthy president and doesn't need an unworthy president.

Back to the trees and their battle: We tend to look at every political race in a similar way – winners and losers, manipulations and calculations, political alliances and personal grudges. The Israeli press covers the presidential race in such a way. It is highly interested in the fact that Netanyahu is likely to lose in this race – he was too late to realize that the candidate that he doesn't want (Rivlin) has a good chance of winning, and he is now humiliating himself by trying different plots to prevent this outcome from occurring. The press is also interested in the reasons for which Netanyahu doesn't want this or that candidate, and whether the dislike for this or that candidate is his (Netanyahu's) or really his wife's (Sarah's). Every day we count the votes, even though we know that the ballot is secret and that the politicians tend to not always be truthful about their actual voting. Every day we focus on the trees and ignore the forest: if the next president is not going to be someone we can be proud of – then it doesn't much matter if the winner is candidate A, candidate B, or candidate C. We might as well ignore the race and later ignore the winner.

Contrary to what many Israelis think, it isn't the aggressive, and at times muddy, political battle that is troubling about this story. Political battles are good and necessary in a democracy. Political battles sharpen the mind. Political battles clarify priorities and set agendas. If there's a real reason for concern in this story, it is Israel's loss of high standards – its loss of a sense of the things that merit an aggressive battle. The fact that Knesset members don't feel embarrassed to play in such shallow-water-politics is troubling. That they waste good manipulation on a meaningless selection is troubling. That they engage in gossip that has no consequence is troubling. Expected – yet troubling.

My point: I don't mind it if the Knesset has a big fight over the presidency – an even bigger fight than the one it is having now – an even dirtier fight than it is having now – an even fiercer fight than it is having now – as long as it’s a fight that means something. Not just scoring a point for or against the Prime Minister. Not just finding a job for a likable politician. In the case of the presidency, to mean something is to fight for or against someone that can make the office worth the trouble, to fight over larger than life personalities with great achievements and impressive track records.

Let’s make our fights count for something. Let’s have a more meaningful mudslinging.

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