The Un-Peres

Moshe Katzav, who was sworn in on Tuesday as Israel’s eighth president, garnered a bouquet of firsts. The affable, 55-year-old former tourism minister was not the first Sephardi head of state; Yitzhak Navon beat him to that. But he was the first who spent his immigrant childhood in a tent in a ma’abara (transit camp). He was the first who grew up and stayed in a struggling, boondocks development town. And he was the first Likud candidate ever to make it past the first ballot.

Inevitably, Katzav, who surprised the nation and the pundits by defeating Shimon Peres 63-57 in a secret ballot of Knesset members, projected himself as a president who can unify a society riven between Easterners and Westerners, religious and secular, rich and poor, veterans and newcomers, Jews and Arabs.

“This victory,” he said in his acceptance speech on Monday, “is first and foremost an expression of the will of the nation to unify and heal Israeli society.” Less tactfully, his supporters exulted in what they hailed as a triumph for “the people” over “the elites.” It was all that, but more.

The turnabout was a devastating blow not just to Peres, Israel’s elder statesman who turns 77 this month, but to the beleaguered prime minister, Ehud Barak. The leader of the right-wing Likud opposition, Ariel Sharon, hailed it as a “vote of no-confidence” in a government which came close, at the Camp David summit, to the most far-reaching peace agreement in the history of the Israeli-Arab conflict.

Elaborating to foreign correspondents on Tuesday, Sharon said, “It happened because we are in a struggle on a crucial national issue: the future of this country. The other parties joined as an expression of deep disappointment and worry.”

The 120-member Knesset elects a president by secret ballot. In the past, legislators often have seized the opportunity to vote across party lines. They chose the best candidate, even if he didn’t enjoy the blessing of their own leaders. Three previous Likud contenders failed at times when their party was in office. Monday’s vote, however, was strictly partisan.

Right-wing and religious parties voted solidly against Peres, but their real target was Barak. They were warning the Labor prime minister that he had no parliamentary majority for a compromise peace that had any prospect of acceptance by the Palestinians. The ultra-Orthodox finally demolished the wishful thinking of the left that they were “moderates” under the theological skin.

Barak insisted that he would not rush into early elections, but it looks as if he will have no choice. “A situation has been created,” said his hard-headed deputy defense minister, Ephraim Sneh, “in which we do not have a majority to pass decisions in the Knesset, even nonpolitical decisions. The conclusion is that we must have elections and win a majority among the people.”

For all the talk of unity and reconciliation, Katzav’s triumph was also a vote for religious and Sephardi power. The new president is an observant, though not a demonstrative, Orthodox Jew. He was born in Iran. The manner of his election has already alienated many secular and Western Israelis.

The two ultra-Orthodox parties, the Sephardi Shas and Ashkenazi United Torah Judaism, dismissed all the favors Barak and Peres have rendered them – draft exemptions for yeshiva students, the sacrifice of Yossi Sarid and other left-liberal Meretz ministers – and gave all their 22 votes to Katzav, despite promising at least some to Peres.

In a blazing front-page commentary, Jerusalem Post columnist Amotz Asa-El denounced their vote as “a spit in the face of a Zionist icon by non- and sometimes anti-Zionist small-time politicians.”

He added, “The circumstances of Peres’ downfall are merely details in the broad, colorful, and increasingly alarming picture depicting the threat from within to a century of Zionist achievement.”

Although Shas claimed that its spiritual mentor, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, gave its 17 Knesset members a free vote, one of them, David Azulai, acknowledged that “as soon as the rabbi said so, everyone voted Katzav.” Rafael Pinhasi, the secretary of the party’s council of sages, laid it on the line: “We sanctified the name of God in this vote. I am glad that a member of the Oriental communities was chosen. We made the Ninth of Av for the left one week early.”

The left contends that Barak and Peres, rather than the Knesset, truly represent the national will. A Gallup survey published in Ma’ariv last Friday logged 63 percent of the voters supporting Peres against a mere 20 percent for Katzav. After Camp David, Barak increased his lead over both Sharon (45-30 percent) and his rival for the Likud nomination, former Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu (43-38). A majority of 66 percent supported the continuation of the peace process.

Moshe Katzav, whose family came here from Iran when he was 6 years old, has a mixed public record. He was the first child from Kiryat Malachi, a Negev township designed to provide homes and jobs for new immigrants, to make it to university. At 24, with a degree in economics and history and a tank corporal’s stripes, he became its youngest mayor.

Yet three decades later, Kiryat Malachi, where he still lives with his Ashkenazi bank clerk wife Gila and five children, remains a basket case. Unemployment is high, and the present mayor, Katzav’s younger brother Lior, constantly complains that he has no budget to pay municipal salaries.

Katzav is a conventional Likud nationalist, but not a fanatical one. He has toed the party line but has made few enemies. In his stewardship as, successively, minister of labor, transport and tourism, he caused no waves and left no memorable legacy. One commentator predicted on Israeli television that his presidency would prove boring. No one argued.