TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) — Among those vying to become Israel’s next president are a former defense minister, a former foreign minister, a former finance minister, a respected long-serving lawmaker and a Nobel Prize winner. Amazingly, the man they all seek to replace has held all of those titles and more during a legendary 65-year political career.
Shimon Peres, the indomitable 90-year-old elder statesman of Israeli politics, concludes his seven-year term as the country’s ceremonial head of state this summer. While the group of potential successors is locked in a heated battle over the lofty post, whoever emerges victorious likely faces an even tougher task of breaking out of Peres’ enormous shadow.
Officially, the president has only two primary powers: assigning a potential prime minister to build a coalition government after elections and issuing pardons to criminals. But Peres, a two-time former prime minister, has risen above the post.
He restored honor to the presidency after replacing the disgraced Moshe Katsav, forced to resign in a sex scandal and later convicted of rape in 2007. Peres quickly became the country’s most popular political figure, finally basking in the public adoration that eluded him for most of his lengthy career.
He also became a de facto foreign minister who promoted Israel abroad thanks to his wide network of global contacts, presenting a respectable face for the country when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government was often under fire for its West Bank settlement policies. He offered a bridge to the Arab world and was greeted like royalty in Europe and Washington, where President Barack Obama awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.