A political prince against a bereaved mother: MPs to elect Israel’s 11th president

The 120 Israeli Knesset members will vote on Wednesday for the country’s next president, in a race that pits Isaac Herzog, perhaps Israel’s closest thing to royalty, against Miriam Peretz, a woman of Moroccan descent who overcame the loss of two of his battling sons to become an Israel Prize-winning educator.

Whoever is elected will replace popular president Reuven Rivlin, whose seven-year term ends on July 9.

Herzog, 60 – the chairman of the Jewish Agency, a former leader of the Labor Party, the son of Israel’s sixth president, Chaim Herzog, and the grandson of Israel’s first chief rabbi, to whom he was appointed – is considered the favorite. However, the secretive nature of the voting process may well leave an opportunity for Peretz to become the first woman ever to be elected to the post.

“I think it would be a great miracle,” Peretz, 67, told Channel 13 in an interview conducted as a reporter followed her to the Knesset as she campaigned among lawmakers.

Tuesday’s show highlighted the stark contrast between Peretz, who warmly kissed and posed for photos with parliamentary staff, and Herzog, a seasoned politician with many connections but little charisma.

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Presidential candidate Miriam Peretz seen in the Knesset on June 1, 2021 (Yonatan Sindel / Flash90)

“Look at me,” Peretz said. “A woman who came from Morocco, from the Atlas Mountains, with parents who could neither read nor write.”

“Has anyone thought that a girl like me, who grew up in an immigrant camp in Beer Sheva, who cleaned houses until the age of 20 so that she could buy a refrigerator in his parents, would be here now? she asked, adding that she drew her strength from the people of the country.

Peretz has become a household name under the most tragic circumstances after his eldest son Uriel was killed in action in Lebanon in 1998 and his younger brother Eliraz was killed in an operation near Gaza in 2010. But the Casablanca native is became a motivational speaker on issues surrounding Zionism and coping with loss. In 2018, she won the Israel Lifetime Achievement Award, the country’s highest cultural honor.

Education Minister Naftali Bennett (right) with Israel Prize winner Miriam Peretz during the ceremony at the International Conference Center (ICC) in Jerusalem on April 19, 2018 (Hadas Parush / Flash90)

In 2019, several political parties courted Peretz to join them ahead of the first of four elections held in the past two years. Interested lists included New Right, Kulanu and Yesh Atid – right-wing, center-right and center parties. Peretz declined the offers, explaining that she wanted to continue her public work outside of politics, where she believed she had more influence.

While Peretz is seen as a popular and rallying figure, most of her support will likely come from the right given her ties to the national religious camp and the fact that she is running against a former left-wing Labor chairman.

Peretz would be the first woman elected president, but she would not be the first woman to hold the post. In 2007, then Knesset Speaker Dalia Itzik served as interim president for several months following Moshe Katsav’s resignation over rape allegations for which he was ultimately convicted.

Herzog, on the other hand, seemed to rely on his extensive personal connections with lawmakers from all political backgrounds, most of whom refer to him by his childhood nickname, “Candle.”

By obtaining the 10 signatures of lawmakers he needed to participate in the race, he obtained the signatures of Likud MPs Gadi Yevarkan and Keti Shitrit; MPs Yaakov Asher, Yitzhak Pindrus and Ya’akov Tessler for Unified Judaism of Torah; Religious Zionism MK Simcha Rotman; MPs Yamina Idit Silman and Abir Kara; Yesh Atid MP Merav Ben Ari; Oded Forer and Hamad Amar, MPs from Yisrael Beytenu; and Labor MPs Omer Barlev, Efrat Rayten and Ram Shefa.

Then-Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations Chaim Herzog addressing the General Assembly on November 10, 1975 at the United Nations in New York. (UN Photo / Michos Tzovaras)

Herzog deposited 27 signatures and Peretz deposited 11.

“It’s a campaign like any other campaign,” he told Channel 13.

“The Knesset will decide who will be the speaker and I respect the members of the Knesset. I see them again and again and tell them about everything, ”said Herzog, who also visited the Western Wall the day before the vote.

“My personal family history and years of public experience have taught me to never take for granted the miracle of the existence of the State of Israel,” he said when announcing his candidacy, stressing the the need to heal and unite the nation after the ongoing fighting in Gaza and the protracted political crisis, as well as the need to strengthen ties with the global Jewish community.

Visit of presidential candidate Isaac Herzog to the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem on June 1, 2021 (Olivier Fitoussi / Flash90)

The president of Israel is largely ceremonial, but plays a key role in deciding who gets the mandate to form a government after the elections. The president also has the power to pardon people and grant clemency, which could become a key issue if Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is convicted in his corruption trial.

Both candidates declined to say whether they would consider pardoning Netanyahu and Peretz said the issue was not raised during his talks with MPs.

Netanyahu did not support either candidate.

Perhaps underlining the hardships Peretz will have, Shelly Yachimovich, another former Labor leader and rival of social activist and feminist Herzog, tweeted that she supported Herzog nonetheless.

“If I was still an MP, I would vote for Isaac Herzog,” she tweeted. “He’s a rich, white, privileged man (who called me a bitch) and I prefer a Mizrahi woman. But… Peretz is appreciated and awesome, and we identify with his grief, but we sanctify life, and choosing someone because of a loss would be a step too far.

“Candle is just suitable,” she wrote. “In a conventional way, not revolutionary.”

Tal Schneider contributed to this report


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