It is hard to fight the force of habit. The habit of automatically reacting to every event and every remark eventually has a desensitizing effect.
President Shimon Peres cannot help himself; he submits to this habit — some would say bad habit — of expressing his diplomatic views at every possible venue, regardless of the timing or the position he holds. His remarks spark outrage on the Right, but the Left is pleased. After all, his words are like a pep talk geared toward the Left's voters, who are convinced that the president means well and that he has gotten a second wind in his old age.
The discussion surrounding the president's remarks should be based on principle. The debate should put an end to the duality of the reactions once and for all and prevent a situation in which, on the eve of the election, the president's public status is used to affect the results, in either direction.
To illustrate the problematic nature of Peres' remarks, I went back to the book he wrote in 1978, "And Now Tomorrow." This is what Peres wrote 34 years ago: 'It is doubtful that territorial expanse can provide a country with total deterrence, but the absence of minimal territorial expanse will leave Israel in a position of total non-deterrence ... and will arouse in the Arabs an irresistible desire to attack and destroy the Jewish state."
Isn't it obvious that if those lines were written today, the spectrum of responses would be reversed? We must revisit the fundamental, forgotten questions: Does the president have to come from the ranks of the Knesset, from inside a political party? Is it necessary to put our president, who is a politician by nature, to a test whose results are known in advance? And assuming that the first hurdle, the political one, is overcome, who can guarantee that the principle of the separation of powers would be realized even with a non-political president?
The politicians’ response may be surprising in that it may answer the last two questions: The president would be chosen from among those serving in the Knesset, but the clear limitations on his office, which already exist in the law, would have to be dramatically revamped, with the addition of clear enforcement mechanisms. Who is supposed to decide this? Again we have to go back to the Knesset, which is where these things will be decided. That is the trap of Israel democracy.
The results of the coming elections could bring the Left closer to its goal of seeing its own presidential candidate elected. This time, it will demand that the candidate is selected from outside the Knesset. An orchestrated media blitz just ahead of Peres' retirement will make the Right's candidate — Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin — fall into line with the accepted norm, or, alternately, will spark unbearable pressure to change the existing law, essentially to extend Peres' term.
The host of dilemmas mentioned above isn't meant to diffuse the bitter taste of Peres' conduct since he assumed the presidency. Timing and status don't affect his decisions, because the president is convinced that his eternal duty is to go against the grain and change the course of history. For the sake of politeness, it would be good for the president to hold his tongue, if not forever then at least for the next 40 days.