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The Race for President

Jerusalem Journal*

Posted: January 31, 2007

The latest buzz in Israel is about who will replace President Moshe Katzav, who has so tragically fallen from his public pedestal.

President Katzav once enjoyed tremendous popularity and had been thought to be one of the few presidents who was able to bridge the ethnic and political divides in the country. But the suspicion of sexual harassment – which turned into charges by the Attorney General of rape, obstruction of justice, fraud and breach of trust – has left both him and his office battered.

When the suspicions against Katzav emerged in the fall, there had been a constant vigil of people outside his residence, just two blocks away from the ADL office in Jerusalem, calling for his resignation.

Today, there is no one. Some of his staff members have quit their posts and officials have cut all but mandatory links with his office. Since the allegations against him became public, the President has avoided traveling abroad and drastically reduced his public appearances. It is as if he no longer exists and the country has become focused on who will take his place.

Katzav, 61, once the wonder boy of the Likud Party, has become the object of newspaper cartoons and a symbol of the woes of Israel’s leadership vacuum. The Attorney General’s charges against the President topped a couple of weeks in which the Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff was replaced following criticism of his performance during the summer’s conflict with Hezbollah, and the police announced an investigation of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert for possible wrongdoing in the sale of the state’s second largest bank.

The Katzav scandal, in particular, has had a damaging effect on Israel. For Israelis, it is not comfortable to have a president, albeit in a mainly ceremonial role, being accused of rape. Indeed, the Arab media in its editorials and cartoons have exploited this by comparing the State of Israel to a rapist.

On the one hand, the country can feel proud of its democracy and its commitment to the judicial process.  This is the message the Ministry of Foreign Affairs wants its diplomats abroad to convey.  But on the other hand, Katzav is the country’s head of state and his downfall is seen as a symbol of the unprecedented low opinion the nation has of its leaders. 

Katzav has temporarily suspended himself until his hearing with the Attorney General. If indicted, he will immediately resign, thus opening the way for a new election for president by members of the Israeli Knesset, to take place within 45 days. If it drags on, then the original mid-July election date (when Katzav’s term officially ends) will stand. While no “race” has been formally opened, there has been a flurry of behind-the-scenes maneuvering by the candidates.

For the moment, the leading candidates for the presidency are the perennial Shimon Peres, currently Vice Prime Minister (Kadima), former Speaker of the Knesset Reuven Rivlin (Likud) and Collette Avital, currently Deputy Speaker of the Knesset (Labor). Other names being bandied about are former Supreme Court Justice Aharon Barak and Rabbi Meir Lau, former Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi.

• Shimon Peres, 83, who unexpectedly lost to Katzav last time around, is by far the most popular candidate in the country according to public opinion polls. But it is the 120-member Knesset which votes secretly and that brings intrigue to the outcome.  Peres has his supporters not just in Kadima but in his long-time Labor Party and others. But he also has created many political enemies during his 50-plus years in government. One proposal being debated now in the Knesset is the so-called “Peres Law” which will make the vote for president open, the thinking being that no one would publicly vote against Israel’s elder statesman. One political cartoon has Peres shooting for an enormous soccer goal with legislators holding it open yelling “Is it wide enough for you?”

• Reuven “Ruby” Rivlin, 67, is probably the best liked by fellow Knesset members, which is key here since they are the ones voting. A lawyer by profession, he served just one term as a minister, but is known for his jovial character and stalwart, old-time Zionist-Revisionist views which he no doubt inherited from his father, Prof. Yosef-Yoel Rivlin, who lost against Yitzhak Ben-Tzvi for President in 1957. Hardly as well known around the world as Peres, Rivlin has made great efforts to bridge the gaps between Jews and Arabs in Israel and work for equality. “I am a Jabotinskyite, so it is important for me to unite the whole country,” he quipped.

• Colette Avital, 67, has been very involved in Diaspora affairs and before entering politics, served in Israel’s diplomatic corps in a variety of positions, including Consul General in New York. Avital had been known as a supporter of Peres but has since struck out on her own.   There are many who feel the time has come for a woman President, and believe that such a development could help heal the Katzav scandal. Avital has vowed not to pull out of the race for Peres’ sake, which could help Rivlin in the end.

• Rabbi Meir Lau, 70, was a well-respected Chief Rabbi of Israel and is currently Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv where he enjoys great popularity. A Holocaust survivor and a stirring orator, Lau has always made efforts to find consensus in Israeli society, an attribute that has won him support as the compromise candidate for all sides. One unexpected pitfall for Lau is the hesitation by some in the Sephardi religious camp to see the presidency occupied by an Ashkenazi and Orthodox Rabbi. Others have expressed disappointment in his religious rulings.

In the meantime, following official protocol, Speaker of the Knesset Dalia Itzik has taken the reins of the presidency until Katsav resigns or returns to office before his term ends.  According to some reports, despite Itzik’s protestations, should Peres pull out of the race, Itzik may run as Kadima’s candidate, thus putting two women in the running – an ironic postscript to a scandal that has shaken the country.   
* By Arieh O'Sullivan, Director of Communications at ADL's Israel Office in Jerusalem.

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