JERUSALEM (Mar. 22)
Chaim Herzog, the Labor Alignment’s candidate, was elected Israel’s sixth President by secret ballot in the Knesset today. His defeat of the coalition candidate. Supreme Court Justice Menachem Elon, by a vote of 61-57, and two abstentions, was a stunning political setback for Premier Menachem Begin’s government.
Sources within the coalition itself called for the government’s resignation because it was clear that Herzog’s victory was the result of defections within the coalition’s Knesset faction.
Herzog, who will be sworn into office on May 5, succeeding President Yitzhak Navon, pledged after his election that as President he would strive for greater unity in Israel and would devote himself totally to serving and representing the entire nation regardless of political affiliation. He also expressed his “hope” that “during my term we shall reach peace with our neighbors.”
CRIES OF ‘TRAITOR’
Although political pundits had predicted a close vote and even the possibility of an upset, it was generally believed that Elon would emerge victorious to become the first Israeli President since Chaim Weizmann not affiliated with the Labor Party. That belief was based on the conviction that Likud MKs felt it was time Israel had a President who was the choice of the governing party, not the opposition.
The coalition musters a total of 64 votes in the Knesset. The margin of Herzog’s victory indicated that seven coalition MKs failed to vote for the government’s candidate. This brought cries of “traitor” from the Agudat Israel Party which strongly backed Elon, himself an Orthodox Jew and an authority on religious law.
BEGIN VISIBLY SHOCKED
Begin was visibly shocked when Knesset Speaker Menachem Savidor announced the results of the vote. He left the Knesset chamber without personally congratulating the victor. But later Begin and Elon separately telephoned Herzog to offer their congratulations and good wishes.
The blow to the coalition and to Begin personally was compounded by the fact that this was the second time during a Likud administration that the ruling party failed to elect its own Presidential candidate. Retiring President Navon was a Labor MK before his election five years ago. He had served in the Knesset from 1974-77 when Premier Yitzhak Rabin’s Labor-led coalition governed the country.
Begin and his coalition floor managers held a dour postmortem after the voting. “What happened is very saddening but that is our democracy and now we must congratulate the elected President,” Begin said. Most coalition members concede that it was virtually impossible to find out which of their colleagues defected because of the secret ballot.
But at least one Herut MK, David Magen, infuriated by the “betrayal,” warned in a radio interview that it would not take long for the truth to be known. There are members of the coalition, he said, who will “now walk with an unclean conscience.” Magen added that he thought highly of Herzog personally but the issue was the “trampling” of coalition discipline.
Labor Party chairman Shimon Peres was among the first to congratulate Herzog.” This is a great day for the Knesset. The vote was not dictated by party considerations,” he said.
Elon, the defeated candidate, told reporters after the vote that he was “proud of the democratic process” and wished every success to the President-elect and his wife, Ora.
But coalition chairman Avraham Shapiro of the Agudat Israel, charged that there were seven “traitors” and the coalition will have to be careful in the future to “know whom we are sitting with.” He said, however, that he was a long-time personal friend of Herzog though he voted for Elon who he knew and respected for “over 30 years.”
Another Agudat Israel Knesset leader, Finance Committee chairman Shlomo Lorincz, urged the government to resign because of defections within its ranks. Education Minister Zevulun Hammer of the National Religious Party, did not rule out the possibility that the election results would impel the government to resign. Although the NRP is opposed to early elections, Hammer said it could not continue to object if the political situation requires it.
Herzog, 64, is a former Ambassador to the United Nations and a former chief of military intelligence. In recent years he has become one of Israel’s leading military commentators.
During the 1967 and 1973 wars his informative, credible and compassionate radio and television commentaries provided Israelis with both facts and encouragement in dark hours. His personal popularity, like that of retiring President Navon, transcends party and political lines. (See separate profile on Herzog.)
Herzog told reporters in pre-election interviews that if elected he would model his Presidency on Navon’s.
ELON WAS NOT WIDELY KNOWN
Elon, though respected in judicial circles, was not a widely known public figure before he was selected to be the coalition candidate. He was, in fact, a second choice. Begin originally backed Interior Minister Yosef Burg, a veteran leader of the NRP. But Burg withdrew his candidacy because he felt the Knesset would not give him a broad consensus and he did not want to be elected by a narrow margin.
Elon’s announcement after the voting that he would return to the relative anonymity of the Supreme Court bench drew criticism today from jurists who thought he should have resigned from the court when he became a Presidential candidate and should not return to it now.
Several senior jurists said privately that while Elon has done nothing wrong, his ability to administer justice would appear to be compromised by the fact that he stood for election as a partisan candidate. Such doubts would not have arisen had Elon enjoyed the support of both major parties, they said.