How Shimon Peres Reinvented Israel's Presidency

In Israel, the office of the presidency is similar to the modern monarchy in England. The president, like the royal family, is largely ceremonial. Real power lies with the prime minister and Parliament. The president travels the world, greets foreign dignitaries, and, to some extent, plays the role of national entertainer. Like British sovereigns, when things go badly, he acts as a whipping boy upon whom Israelis vent their frustrations. Presidents who are accused of misbehaving—like Moshe Katsav, who will likely go on trial later this year on rape charges—are flayed by Israel's version of Fleet Street like their naughty royal counterparts. Amid the running soap opera, one occasionally hears murmurs that the office is obsolete and embarrassing, and should be abolished.

All that recently changed. Israel's current president is Shimon Peres—at 86, the Jewish state's last surviving Founding Father. Far from the retiring royal, the dean of Israel's left has stepped aggressively into the spotlight this summer. With Israel's hawkish foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, shunted aside, Peres has filled the vacuum. The president, who took office two years ago, met with Barack Obama at the White House this spring even before Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. At Davos earlier this year, it was Peres who found himself defending the Jewish state during a contentious debate with Turkey's prime minister, Recep Erdogan. And last week it was Peres again who announced that, after meeting with Russia's president, Dmitri Medvedev, the two had discussed the possibility of Russia scrapping its deal to provide Iran with sophisticated S-300 missiles. Where the prime minister or the foreign minister should otherwise be in charge, Peres has appeared to stand for Israel.

Peres has never fared well at the ballot box. The joke in Israel is that he could not get elected to his co-op board. But the president is well liked abroad, where his haiku-like pronouncements on coexistence and the modern world are popular among intellectuals in Europe and the United States. With age, as he becomes an increasingly nonthreatening figure to potential rivals, his stature has only increased. The president's "unprecedented popularity," he recently told The New York Times, is becoming "almost embarrassing for me."

For now, the arrangement is useful to all parties, including Netanyahu. As a dove who won a Nobel Peace Prize for helping to craft the Oslo Accords of 1993, the president takes the edge off Netanyahu's hawkish image. And foreign diplomats often prefer to deal with Peres rather than Lieberman. (The foreign minister, who once suggested that Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak could "go to hell," is not popular in many world capitals.) The role is well suited to Peres—an energetic, irrepressible politician who is remarkably fit for someone nearing the end of his ninth decade. Still, much of Peres's exanded job description exists at the pleasure of the prime minister. "It can be stopped at any time that Netanyahu wants it to stop," says one Peres ally, who didn't want to be identified for fear of burning his bridges with the increasingly powerful president.

Peres's expanded role has sparked some debate, however, about whether a strong presidency is really such a good thing in the long term. The president in Israel is elected by the Knesset, the country's Parliament. He serves a seven-year term and is subject to few of the democratic checks and balances that the prime minister faces. Some Israelis believe a strong presidency would provide decisive executive leadership for governments that are often hobbled by vituperative coalition bickering. Yet while an activist president may lend some element of political cover to Netanyahu, it also removes a layer of accountability. According to Israeli law, the president can only be dislodged by the vote of three quarters of the Knesset. "Is it a good thing in terms of our political system?" asks Gadi Taub, a professor of public policy at Hebrew University. "No, it's not. Imagine the queen of England intervening like this."

Still, there is little likelihood that the office will be transformed in any lasting way after Peres fulfills his term (or, perhaps, dies in office; Peres would be 93 when his term expires). There is some talk that Peres has strengthened the office's institutional structure, adding a number of sharp policy advisers. Peres is not the first president to stretch his official role—Ezer Weizman, a Labor Party politician who served as president in the late 1990s, was also criticized for meddling in affairs beyond the scope of his office. (He once invited Yasir Arafat to visit his home on Israel's Mediterranean coast.) But Peres is certainly the first to stretch it this far. "It's very much a function of the individual," says Gerald Steinberg, a political studies professor at Bar Ilan University. Like Britain, Israel lacks a formal constitution, but also like the British monarch, the presidency isn't about to be abolished anytime soon. As Peres has shown, the office can sometimes be useful after all.