Israel has found it’s no easy task to find a successor to President Shimon Peres, the 90-year-old Nobel peace laureate and statesman who imbued his largely ceremonial office with a prestige far beyond its powers.
Leading the field of four men and two women seeking the job is former Knesset Speaker Reuben “Ruby” Rivlin, 74, a parliamentary backbencher from the governing Likud party who recently won Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s endorsement. With Rivlin a declared opponent of Palestinian statehood, the presidency would no longer serve, as it did under Peres, as a pulpit for championing a peace process already reeling from the collapse of U.S.-brokered talks.
“Peres is the country’s leading advocate of the two-state solution, and his possible replacement in this office by an opponent of it is a setback for those in the peace camp,” said Alon Liel, a former director of Israel’s foreign ministry.
Parliament, or Knesset, will choose the next president from among six candidates in a June 10 vote. Rivlin’s rivals are former Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer of the opposition Labor Party, ex-Finance Minister Meir Sheetrit, former Communications Minister and Knesset Speaker Dalia Itzik, Nobel Prize-winning chemist Dan Shechtman and former Supreme Court Judge Dalia Dorner.
Israel’s president serves for seven years as the country’s official head of state, and along with protocol duties, has the power to grant pardons and select which party leader gets first chance to form a new government after elections. The first president, Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann, complained he was a “prisoner” in the office, shunted to the political sidelines. The post was once offered to Albert Einstein, who declined it.
While all six of the current contenders have years of public service, none commands the gravitas of Peres, who served as prime minister, defense minister, treasury chief and top diplomat during his seven-decade career and walks as easily among Hollywood stars as among world leaders.
“There’s very few people that have the international prestige that Peres has,” said Gadi Wolfsfeld, a political scientist at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya. “I assume the role of president will return now to its role of relative international obscurity.”
Peres assumed the presidency in 2007 after his predecessor, Moshe Katsav, resigned to fight rape charges of which he was eventually convicted and jailed. The election of the elder statesman, who won the Nobel in 1994 for his role in the first Israeli-Palestinian peace accord, was seen as key to restoring the luster to the tarnished office.
Peres used his renown to turn the position into a platform to tout Israel’s technological achievements and promote peace with its Arab neighbors. In one of his last public acts of office, he is due on June 8 to meet in the Vatican with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Pope Francis in a joint prayer for peace.
His high-flying profile didn’t escape criticism, especially an estimated $3 million birthday celebration last year, paid in part by private donations, where he was feted by the likes of Barbra Streisand, Sharon Stone and Bill Clinton. Israel’s president can serve only one term, and Peres’ tenure ends July 27.
While parliament’s secret vote for president sometimes brings surprises -- most famously, Peres’ own defeat by Katsav in 2000 -- Rivlin has a reputation as an affable lawmaker whose popularity extends beyond his Likud Party. During the campaign, he mustered more endorsements from lawmakers than any other contender, the Haaretz newspaper reported.
“Rivlin has the best chance, and is the only one that for sure is guaranteed to make it to a second round of voting if there is one,” said Avraham Diskin, a political science professor emeritus at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, in a telephone interview.
Election to the presidency requires an absolute majority of parliament’s 120 members. Last week, Rivlin’s candidacy gained a boost when Netanyahu backed him.
That didn’t come easy. Having emerged from rival political camps within Likud, Netanyahu tried courting alternative candidates. Elie Wiesel, who won the 1986 Nobel peace prize for humanitarian work, confirmed an overture from the prime minister to the Yediot Ahronot newspaper. A Netanyahu spokesman wouldn’t comment on the report.
Rivlin is the only Likud candidate in the race. Another possible Likud contender, Energy Minister Silvan Shalom, backed out of the contest after failing to win Netanyahu’s support. His campaign had been marred by allegations of sexual harassment dating back 15 years that he denied. The attorney general closed the investigation, citing the statute of limitations, among other factors.
If Rivlin is elected, his opposition to Palestinian statehood and support for Israeli settlement in the West Bank won’t help Israel’s image internationally, said Liel, the former Foreign Ministry director. Israel today announced plans to build 1,500 more settlement homes in response to the formation of a Palestinian government including Hamas, considered a terrorist organization by Israel, the U.S. and European Union. In the past, Rivlin has rejected claims that settlements are an obstacle to peace.
“If Rivlin speaks on the Palestinian issue to the international media the way he has done here in Hebrew, and peace talks are not resumed, it would increase the criticism of Israel,” Liel said. “But he’s a clever guy, and I think he will be quite silent in the international arena on this issue.”
Rivlin has said that if chosen he would serve as a “people’s president” focusing on domestic issues, and avoid taking partisan political stands.
Peres, while careful to avoid direct criticism of Netanyahu, occasionally expressed contrasting diplomatic views, speaking more positively of efforts to reach a negotiated settlement with Iran over its nuclear program. He called Abbas a “true partner for peace” even while the government harshly criticized the Palestinian leader.
Some in Israel say Peres could have spoken out more forcefully against government policies he found objectionable, as a predecessor, Yitzhak Navon, did in criticizing Israel’s war in Lebanon in the early 1980s.
“When Peres came out with political statements, he either stepped back very quickly, or was put in his place by Netanyahu,” said Reuven Hazan, political science professor at The Hebrew University. “He could have become a vocal opposition, which he didn’t; he worked more in tandem with Netanyahu than one would have expected, knowing the differences between them.”
Rivlin has sparred with Netanyahu in the past and may also stake out his own positions if elected president, Diskin said.
“Rivlin will try to be as statesmanlike as possible, but even while he tried also to be as statesmanlike as possible when he served as Speaker, he managed to take digs at Netanyahu a number of times,” Diskin said.