Israel’s presidency is designed as a respected, mostly ceremonial, position transcending the nitty-gritty of politicking, with policy-making the sole province of the executive branch, the government and its head.
And that is how it was conducted until Shimon Peres entered the Presidential Residence in Jerusalem.
As his seven-year term draws to a close, the 91-year old former veteran of Israeli politics is discovered to have been running an indepenent policy in the frequent meetings he initiated with foreign leaders at home and on his travels. That policy conflicted in critical aspects with the course set by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.
Friday, May 16, Peres played host to visiting US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel. He informed his visitor, the embodiment of US military strength, that America was not cut out to be the world’s policeman but rather the instigator of world peace.
He did not mention Iran, but his purpose was to deliberately contradict the spirit of the message Secretary Hagel had just heard from Netanyahu, which was that the US must act to stop the ayatollahs from prevailing in the nuclear controversy and continuing to cheat the world.
In this contest with Peres, Netanyahu was at a disadvantage, because his words fell on deaf ears. It is no secret that President Barack Obama will never attack Iran’s nuclear program, a position Peres backed to the hilt, leaving Netanyahu with empty words and low credibility, after years of holding back on Israel’s avowed military option for preempting a nuclear Iran.
Continuing the charade, Secretary Hagel offered this ringing pledge after talking to the Israeli president: “I want to assure you of the United States’ commitment to ensuring Iran does not get a nuclear weapon – and that America will do what we must to live up to that commitment.”
As he spoke, the latest round of nuclear talks between the Six Powers and Iran, touted optimistically as heralding the draft of a comprehensive accord, collapsed in Vienna after Iran rejected one point after another.
Tehran saw no need to yield on a single centrifuge or missile for the sake of an agreement, when it was obvious that neither the US nor Israel was about to launch a military offensive to interfere with its progress toward a nuclear bomb. The US and Israeli presidents were, moreover, in agreement that America’s mission was to bring peace not war.
On peacemaking with the Palestinians, President Peres was more direct, taking matters in his own hands. Without batting an eyelid, he revealed on Israel’s Independence Day, May 6, that in 2011, he was on his way to cross the border into Jordan and meet up with the Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas to sign a peace accord – when a phone call came from Netanyahu telling him not to proceed to Amman and return at once to Jerusalem.
“Netanyahu stopped me,” he said and claimed that the prime minister had endorsed his initiative before cutting it short.. “Maybe he thought that a better deal was attainable,” he said sarcastically, hinting broadly that if he were prime minister in charge of negotiations, instead of Netanyahu, peace with the Palestinians would have been in the bag three years ago.
Peres's message for Washington was that had the administration heeded his advice and backed him, it could have saved itself from the embarrassing dead end reached by Secretary of State John Kerry’s peace effort .
Peres, who hails from the dovish Labor party, has not just been working against Netanyahu’s policies, he has also for two years been conducting a quiet intrigue to remove him and his Likud party from power. He has been gaining some ground in view of Netanyahu’s predilection for sitting on the fence and letting vital issues take their course without stepping in. The prime minister stood by, for instance, as Shimon Peres broke the rules dictating the limits of presidential authority and privilege, without pulling him up short.
debkafile’s political sources report that Peres turned down offers to serve an extra six months, in consideration of the difficulty of finding a suitable candidate to succeed him, because he plans to return to political center-stage himself after assembling a lineup of Netanyahu’s enemies.
It has not been plain sailing.
One of those enemies, former prime minister Ehud Olmert, was knocked out of the running when the Tel Aviv district court convicted him of corruption and this week sentenced him to four years in jail.
Another foe, former IDF Chief of Staff Gaby Ashkenazi, is under investigation on suspicion of plotting against the defense minister while still in uniform.
But Peres is not giving up. He recently held several meetings with Ehud Barak, ex-prime minister, who last year retired as defense minister in Netanyahu’s cabinet and said he was done with politics.
When asked about this, Barak said: “I have no plans to return to politics.”
Although Barak appeared prominently at a number of public events in recent weeks, he is far from Peres’ ideal choice as a political ally. Barak would be too independent-minded to fit in with Peres’ plans and he had a record of shifting loyalties among various parties before joining Netanyahu’s cabinet.
So the president is still looking around for allies for his umpteenth comeback, hoping to beat Netanyahu’s hunt for the right candidate to succeed him in the presidential residence. The frontrunners are so far mostly unsuitable and the dark horse is still invisible.
The prime minister must be sure of getting the right person, because one of the president’s few prerogatives is the right to pick the most suitable candidate for heading a new government after a general election. With Peres on his tail, he needs a solid ally in the presidential residence in order to maitain his own foothold.