We hardly relish another updated sequel of the same farce, but every seven years we’re compelled to watch a bunch of by and large has-beens vie for the post of president. This prestige-laden sinecure has become a golden-age retreat for assorted flunkies. No finer end-of-career-in-the-limelight can be had.
The trouble is that, as time goes by, the list of candidates becomes exponentially more preposterous, even downright embarrassing.
The really worthy sorts don’t toss their hat in the Knesset’s skewed ring. They may know better than to participate in a scarcely equitable contest. They may be genuinely modest and unassuming or they may not have invested sufficient energy and means in order to make friends and influence factions ahead of the July vote.
The upshot is that the likes of Moshe Arens or Uzi Landau would never nominate themselves nor be considered by others as fitting nominees with a fighting chance.
This, regardless of the fact that they are ideal for the task of representing Israel and putting forth its case. Both are articulate and linguistically proficient (which is decidedly not true even for the more estimable candidates like Reuven Rivlin, Natan Sharansky and David Levy).
*Both Arens and Landau aren’t intellectual lightweights. Both aren’t self-aggrandizing motormouths or superficial followers of fads. Both aren’t liable to suck up to sanctimonious scolders overseas or to sell out for the disingenuous accolades of foreign fair-weather friends who don’t have the good of Israel at heart.
Yet unfortunately, neither Arens nor Landau can claim sufficient support in the Knesset which elects our nominal national headliner. That per force confers advantage on certain aspirants who imagine they can defeat any shred of residual good judgment among our serving parliamentarians or who reckon that their very candidacy will automatically upgrade their status. Silvan Shalom, Dalia Itzik and Binyamin Ben-Eliezer are prime examples of the latter category.
Clearly these three, and not only they, subscribe to the immortal wisdom enunciated long ago by Hanna Rovina, the late-great first lady of the Israeli theater: “people with connections don’t need protectzia” (favoritism, in Israeli parlance).
But do they remotely deserve to be regarded as our national collective’s paradigm, as that personification of the quintessence of the Jewish revival and sovereignty? Are they who we should even want to exalt?
The kindest that can be said about them, even if not about all the self-declared candidates, is that their contribution to this country’s public discourse was at best insubstantial. In some cases, like that of Ben-Eliezer, it often borders on the comical.
Ben-Eliezer, chummily known to all who count as “Fuad,” is considered a frontrunner in the already heated presidential race. He is a former defense minister, infrastructure minister, as well as former Labor leader and prime-ministerial wannabe. He is one of the many retired generals who invariably gravitated to the Labor Party, where they had ample connections that guaranteed them, seemingly sans protectzia, a helpful leg-up to the top of the political hierarchy.
It was all mutually advantageous – symbiotic, in fact. Senior officers were fast-tracked to prominence, while Labor basked in their military celebrity. The effect lent authority to the party’s claim to be the ultimate arbiter of what’s good for our national security. We had whom to rely on and the-generals-turned-politicians couldn’t agree more. They profusely sang their own praises.
Accordingly, Fuad’s overriding preoccupation is to remind Israel of his existence, something he frequently does by volunteering redundant opinions. His know-it-all macho swagger is invariably based on the facade of an altruistic mission to clue-in the benighted masses to what’s happening out there and – better yet – to what’s going to happen.
*Thus, a couple of years after the withdrawal from Gaza, Fuad pontificated in an unforgettable tour de force on TV’s Knesset Channel, that “Israel had made a mistake when it carried out its disengagement and evacuated settlements.”
He omitted mention of his enthusiastic backing pre-disengagement for what his political opponents somehow managed already then to identify as the dangerous sham that it undeniably was. But in real time self-important Fuad dismissed them all as pesky no-account naysayers.
The singular perspicacity of hindsight never motivated him to express remorse. Instead, he tooted his own horn by announcing that “I reached this conclusion,” about the folly of disengagement, “already a few days after the implementation of the settlements-removal and the IDF pullback.”
In other words, what bothersome opposition nuisances and “right-wing alarmists” figured out long before the fateful deed, Fuad was insightful enough to comprehend “already a few days after.”
He also repeatedly stresses that:
- It’s “important to negotiate with moderate Palestinians” and hence “we must be ready to talk about Jerusalem.”
- “You can only close a deal with strong leaders.”
- “The only strong leader,” with whom Israel can close a deal, “now sits in an Israeli prison. He’s Marwan Barghouti. It’s imperative that we free him to have someone to talk to – the sooner the better.”
All this should be born in mind by those currently impressed with Fuad’s rhetoric in favor of kowtowing to John Kerry’s “peace offensive.” Only time will tell if at some future juncture Ben-Eliezer will be as retrospectively clairvoyant about that as he now is about the blunders of yesteryear.
It’s candidates like Fuad who rev up the popularity of Nobel Prize laureate Prof. Dan Shechtman’s Johnny-come-lately presidential drive. The apparent rationale is that it’s preferable to opt for an unknown quantity than to settle for the prevalent mediocrity, conceit and volubility on offer.
Yet herein lies a colossal predicament. Shechtman may be an extraordinary scientific trailblazer and he may give voice to indisputably consensual clichés about education and the young generation, but we know way too little about him to trust him as our national spokesman. Not every great physicist/chemist is inevitably prudent, a trustworthy statesman or our ultimate national icon.
After the fiasco of having ushered Ya’ir Lapid’s 19-member UFO contingent into the Knesset – for no other reason than the deceptive allure of the unfamiliar and untried – we should be wary of doing exactly the same for the highest position in the land.
Down the road, an amateur installed as the state’s titular leader can cause more than mild mortification if he lets his august status go to his head. Things can turn out to be as bad as our experience with Shimon Peres or, conceivably, even worse.
It’s not that Peres was an unknown quantity by any scale. It was obvious from the outset that during his term, the presidential residence would become the sumptuous hub of machination and simultaneously a magnet for jet-set glitterati from all corners of the globe. There was little doubt, given his past predilections, that Peres would exploit the office to further promote himself as a leading luminary in Europe’s cosmopolitan ambiance.
Peres was unlikely to make do with a figurehead role and, as expected, he didn’t. Hyperactively he presided over what he in effect hyped as a parallel government and he predictably spawned a surfeit of inventive visions, platitudes and publicity.
Whatever the elected prime minister of Israel said, he was sure to be countered and contradicted by Peres – most recently about the demand that Ramallah at all recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state in this region, i.e. that it actually agree to end the conflict.
We don’t know of course if a mystery-man like Shechtman would be as contrary as Peres. But that’s precisely the point – we don’t know.
Do we dare take the chance? It’s too risky a gamble to have a loose cannon as president, perhaps a careless chatterer whose indiscretions might jeopardize our interests rather than enhance them.
In so many words the eminent professor has already informed us authoritatively that unless he becomes our president, all is lost for this country. Do we want more such bigheaded pronouncements?
Cool as Shechtman’s overnight cause may be in our insular midst, do we really want to sign those trendy Internet petitions supporting his all-the-rage presidential bid?
With our choices being as unappealing as they are, perhaps it’s time to think out of the box and question whether we at all need a president. We could easily do without one and thereby, as an added bonus, save a bundle of the taxpayer’s money.
This superfluous ceremonial position first served as a glorified kick upstairs for Zionism’s elder venerable, Chaim Weizmann, who himself never pretended that the honor accorded him was indispensable or even minimally meaningful.
It’s hard to forget his observation that “the only place into which the president may shove is nose is into his handkerchief.”
Facing the formidable David Ben-Gurion, Weizmann could hardly not keep his place (his unconcealed reservations about Ben-Gurion notwithstanding). But his spirited nephew, Ezer, who decades later disgraced the same office, began to show us what an irrepressible buttinsky a president could be.
Peres, however, easily surpassed Ezer Weizman’s more outrageous shenanigans. Above all else, Peres proved incontrovertibly that pleasing world opinion has its perks.
Shechtman has already proclaimed that he “doesn’t want to be a copy of Peres.” That in itself is nothing if not laudable, but is it enough? A variation on the Peres theme could be as detrimental as would be its identical duplicate.
Maybe the problem is that nobody uses old-time handkerchiefs anymore.