Global Politics

Israel's looking for a new president — and the competition for the ceremonial job is fierce

Israel’s parliament will choose a new president on Tuesday, but whoever takes over as president of Israel has large shoes to fill.

The outgoing president, Shimon Peres, is considered Israel’s most popular elder statesman. Last year he turned 90, and guests at his birthday party included Bill Clinton, Sharon Stone, Robert DeNiro and his favorite singer, Barbra Streisand.

“Shimon Peres gives me hope that Israel will meet its challenges,” Streisand said on stage at the star-studded celebration. “He knows a key to a better tomorrow is that we are more alike than we are different ... and when you think about it, we’re just all” — and here, she broke out into song — “people, people who need people.”

Streisand couldn’t help herself. There’s a cult of personality surrounding President Peres that doesn’t exist with any other Israeli politician today. World leaders hug him. He’s a vocal advocate for peace. In one music video, he asks the world to friend him on Facebook, for the sake of peace.

“Be my friend for peace,” Peres says, accompanied by a chorus of back-up singers. “I want to hear your voice.”

Peres has been in politics since Israel’s founding. He was prime minister twice, served in nearly every cabinet position, and won a Nobel Peace Prize in 1994 for peace talks with the Palestinians.

But as president, he’s butted heads with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Recently, he claimed a few years back he reached a secret peace deal with the Palestinian president, but that Netanyahu thwarted it.

The current race for president has gotten fierce. Four politicians, a Nobel Prize winning scientist and a former Supreme Court judge are all running. The leading contender is a politician who doesn’t get along with Prime Minister Netanyahu. In recent weeks, Netanyahu reportedly talked about abolishing the office of president altogether. Then it came out that Netanyahu called Elie Wiesel, the famous Holocaust survivor and author, and pressed him to run for president. He turned it down. In 1952, Albert Einstein rejected a similar offer. Political analyst Yaron Ezrahi says all the fuss over what’s only a ceremonial position shows a lot about what Israel is today.

Avraham Diskin, who has served as political advisor to a number of Israeli politicians, explains why Netanyahu would turn to someone like Wiesel, who doesn’t even live in Israel.

“It’s in order to have someone who symbolizes the Jewish people, who symbolizes the past, and someone who probably wouldn’t make too much trouble to the elected bodies of Israel,” Diskin said. “So here is a nice symbol, someone who everyone can respect.”

The president of Israel functions a lot like the Queen of England. Both cut ribbons in front of elementary school students, all accompanied by pomp and circumstance.

“Every time they do the national anthem, or there is a visiting guest, I hear the music,” said Gabriel Motzkin, a philosopher who runs the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute, which is located directly behind the president’s official residence.

If he could choose anyone living today to be the president of Israel, who would he choose?

“Bill Clinton,” Motzkin said, without a moment of hesitation. ”I would vote for him in a second. He was successful in the last set of peace negotiations [between Israelis and Palestinians in 2000]. He is a witty person. He is smart. You’d like to have him for dinner.”

Motzkin ruled out nearly every other possible candidate one by one, saying there’s simply a dearth of qualified people for the role.

Down the street, another neighbor of the president, student Tali Arkushin, who rents an apartment across the street from the president’s residence, said — completely coincidentally — that she’d want Hilary Clinton for the job.

“She would be a great Israeli president. She’s got the look,” she said. Clinton is neither Israeli nor Jewish, but “all of that is reversible.”

“She would make a good neighbor. Maybe I could ask for sugar or eggs or anything we’re out of,” she added.

For the record, Hilary Clinton is not running — for the president of Israel, at least.