Tel Aviv, Israel - For weeks, this country’s political class has been absorbed with the race to fill a largely ceremonial job which many Israelis, including the prime minister, would not mind seeing abolished altogether.
Shimon Peres will step down next month after seven years as Israel's president, and a fractious field of possible successors, which includes two former Knesset speakers and a chemist, does not inspire much public enthusiasm.
The race to replace him has been ugly, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu maneuvering frantically behind the scenes to delay Tuesday’s election and ultimately abolish the position—all to keep a personal enemy from taking office.
A survey carried out by the newspaper Israel HaYom found that more than one-quarter of Israelis want to get rid of the presidency, a pricey but ultimately powerless office. In 2012, the presidency cost 62 million shekels ($17.6m); the budget has tripled over the past decade.
Whoever walks in after Peres, you can say these are very big shoes to fill. I’m willing to bet that six months from now most people outside of Israel will not even remember that we have a president.
Only 16 percent of Jewish Israelis support the current system, in which the president is chosen by the Knesset, the Israeli parliament; 59 percent prefer to elect him directly, according to a January poll by the Israel Democracy Institute.
"For the candidates this is about prestige, there are personal ambitions, political ambitions," said Avraham Diskin, a former adviser to a number of Israeli politicians. "Generally speaking [the public] is not interested… they’re not satisfied with what’s happened over the past few months. But by the time we elect the next president, everybody’s going to forget this whole mess."
The nonagenarian Peres is the country’s most popular politician, seen here as an internationally-respected elder statesman, the final member of the generation that founded the state. He restored some prestige to an office tarred by scandal: Moshe Katsav, who held the post from 2000 to 2007, is now serving a seven-year jail sentence for rape charges, while his predecessor, Ezer Weizman, resigned amid allegations of corruption.
For the past five years, Peres helped to put a softer face on the policies of an increasingly conservative government. On Sunday, for example, he flew to the Vatican for a prayer summit with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, even though Netanyahu has forbidden all contact with the PA since negotiations collapsed in April.
VIDEO: Shimon Peres - 'Self-victimising Palestinians'
The candidates vying to replace Peres include Dalia Itzik, a former speaker from the nearly-defunct Kadima party, and Dan Shechtman, who won the Nobel Prize for his work on crystals. Another possible contender, longtime Knesset member Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, dropped out of the race on Saturday after police questioned him over bribery allegations.
"Whoever walks in after Peres, you can say these are very big shoes to fill," said Reuven Hazan, a professor of political science at Hebrew University. "I’m willing to bet that six months from now most people outside of Israel will not even remember that we have a president."
The likely front-runner is Reuven Rivlin, a former Knesset speaker from Netanyahu’s Likud party. Rivlin is an unabashed right-wing politician, but dislikes Netanyahu, warning in one newspaper interview that his style of governing could "be very harmful to democracy and lower the standing of the Knesset to rock-bottom." He has also criticised the political role of Netanyahu’s wife, Sara, seen in Israel as a Lady Macbeth-esque figure.
|Israeli PM Netanyahu has tried to abolish the presidency, but last week endorsed his political rival, Reuven Rivlin, for the post [AP]
The spat reached its first climax last year, when Netanyahu engineered Rivlin’s ouster from the speaker’s chair, replacing him with Yuli Edelstein.
Rivlin’s bid for the presidency rattled Netanyahu, perhaps because the job does have one key power: deciding which party gets the first shot at forming a government after elections.
The president traditionally chooses the party with the largest number of seats—but not always. In the 2009 election, Tzipi Livni’s Kadima party won a plurality, but Peres asked Netanyahu to form the government, paving the way for his premiership.
Netanyahu, worried about his own political future, spent weeks attempting to sabotage Rivlin’s candidacy. He tried—and failed—to recruit opponents, ranging from Edelstein to Nobel laureate Eli Weisel. Then he tried to delay the election by six months, hoping to use that time to legislate the position out of existence, or to strip the president of his power to choose the prime minister.
None of that worked, and Netanyahu begrudgingly endorsed Rivlin last week.
"If you look at this job as a ceremonial job… the question is not who can fill it, but who can do the least damage. We have fallen from the era of truly great leaders," Hazan said. "It’s a pity that this country cannot produce one or two candidates that are viable and that we can all unite around."