This year’s election in Israel differs from previous campaigns in at least two ways.
First, there is no real competition for the top post. The public overwhelmingly sees Binyamin Netanyahu as its candidate for prime minister, both because he has done a good job in handling the economy and national security and because his opponents are so obviously unqualified to deal with these core issues.
Second, this is the first election in recent memory in which the “peace process” isn’t an issue. The Israeli public, by and large, understands that there has never been peace and the process has run its course. That’s why the Labor Party, which is focusing on social issues, is succeeding, while Meretz and Tzipi Livni’s new party, The Movement, which are talking about two states for two peoples, are going nowhere fast.
Enter President Shimon Peres, with his stunning endorsement of PA chairman Mahmoud Abbas last week as one who “has proven through his deeds and his words that Israel has a real partner for peace.”
Moreover, added Peres in his ode to Abbas, the PA chairman “rejects terrorism, guarantees that under his leadership he won’t allow the outbreak of a violent third intifada, understands that the solution to the Palestinian refugee issue cannot be in Israelterritory and to the detriment of Israel’s character, and stretches out his hand to Israel to restart negotiations … with him, and the brave positions he articulated, there is a real hope for peace.”
The statements were decidedly inappropriate, for a number of reasons. First, the president is supposed to be above politics. He holds a ceremonial post that includes welcoming new ambassadors and formally accepting their letters of credence, signing pardons approved by the Justice Ministry and meeting with the various parties after elections to determine which candidate has the best chance of forming a coalition.
After tragedies such as the Carmel fire or a terror attack, R”l, he visits the mourning families to offer comfort on behalf of the entire country.
To his credit, Peres has used his international connections and standing to attract entrepreneurs for large conferences that advance Israeli economic interests and enhance its image.
But his statement on Abbas was a crass attempt to interfere in the current political campaign. In endorsing Abbas as a willing peace partner whose hand is “stretched out to Israel” in the hope of renewing negotiations, he was in effect blaming Netanyahu for the diplomatic standstill. This, indeed, is the claim of Livni and Meretz leader Zahava Galon. But while it is legitimate for them to make such statements, it is completely illegitimate for the president to do so.
Furthermore, Peres’s comments on Abbas and those he made a few days later on the possibility of negotiating with Hamas invite pressure from the international community, which is eager to hear from none other than the president of Israel himself that Israel is to blame for the absence of diplomatic .
To be fair, Peres has many achievements to his credit in his very long and distinguished career. These include a crucial, behind-the-scenes role in the building of the nuclear reactor in Dimona, stabilizing the Israeli economy in 1985 when inflation was running at 400 percent annually, and standing up for the right of full-time yeshivah students to defer their military service.
But on the negative side, he has done more to promote the myth of a peace process — with devastating consequences — than any other figure in Israeli politics. In his no-doubt genuine desire for peace, he has stubbornly ignored reality on the ground. And while most of the Israeli public has learned to distinguish between fact and fiction, between worthwhile goals and fantasy, Peres hasn’t.
He ignores the fact that Abbas doesn’t represent more than half of the “Palestinian people” — the Arabs who live in Gaza. He ignores the fact that Abbas turned down the scandalously generous offers of former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert that gave him Har Habayis and sovereignty over parts of Yerushalayim. He ignores the fact that Abbas is not fighting terrorism, that his security forces have stopped cooperating with Israel.
In the wake of Peres’s statements of the past week, there is room to revisit the entire question of whether Israel needs the institution of the presidency. Surely, the foreign minister or one of his deputies can welcome new ambassadors, the Justice Ministry can issue pardons without the signature of the president, and someone else within the political system can be found to count to 120 and figure out who has the best chance of forming a coalition.
The presidency, unlike the royal family in the United Kingdom, doesn’t bring in tourism or any other source of revenue or prestige that warrants the huge expenses involved in maintaining the presidential residence, office staff and travel arrangements. It is already clear that the budget that is passed after the Jan. 22 elections will include severe cuts; shutting down the presidency would save millions without eliminating any essential services.
The president can only fulfill his role as father figure of the nation and representative of Israel abroad if he remains above politics. Peres’s statements this week, which were typical of statements he made as a politician, make it impossible for him to do the job.