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Behind the Headlines Who is in Line for President? Many Are Expecting, Few Can Deliver

January 12, 1973
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With President Zalman Shazar due to end his second and final term of office in April, speculation has been mounting in Israeli government circles as to his possible successor. Presidents are elected by the Knesset for four years, with a possible second term of a further four years. Several names are being bandied about. The “favorite” at the moment is Jewish National Fund Chairman and former senior diplomat Yaacov Tsur.

There had been some talk this winter of enacting a special law to enable Shazar to remain in office for a further year, but the prospect of this happening has dimmed recently. Shazar left observers here agape last Sunday when he told a New York audience of American Zionist Federation leaders that U.S. Jews should support Rabbi Shlomo Goren and the National Religious Party, Presidents of Israel are not expected to make public statements on controversial issues–and certainly not in support of political parties. Shazar, now 83, will almost certainly step down in April, ending a distinguished career as journalist, author and public figure.

Tsur, increasingly mentioned as a suitable successor, is 66. Born in Vilna, he represented the Jewish Agency and then the Israel government in many difficult diplomatic tasks culminating in his six years as Ambassador in Paris during the 1960s. Tsur is urbane and well educated and would, it is widely felt, represent Israel with honor and credit.

There is, however, widespread feeling that an Oriental Jew should be elected as President this time–as the ultimate proof that there is no communal discrimination in Israel. Eliahu Sasson, the distinguished diplomat who conducted the Rhodes peace talks in 1949, would be the first Sephardic choice–but he is unfortunately in poor health.


Knesset Speaker Israel Yeshayahu, who is acting President in Shazar’s absence, would be a natural, choice by virtue of his position, but it is unlikely that the Knesset will choose him. He has far from excelled as Speaker: his ultimate test (and failure) came last Monday when he failed to control the “revolt of the small factions” and pandemonium reigned in the House for some 13 hours.

Yeshayahu, 62, born in Yemen, is well versed in the Bible, but otherwise his education shows grave lacunae, particularly in his ignorance of foreign languages. His great achievement was organizing the “Magic Carpet” airlift immigration of Yemenite Jewry in 1949.

Until last year Justice Minister Yaacov Shimshon Shapiro, 70, was thought to be a likely candidate, but his career was somewhat tarnished during the Netivei Neft Sinai oil affair and, although he resumed his Cabinet seat fully rehabilitated three months after he resigned, the after math of the affair would seem to lessen his chances. Shapiro was a leading lawyer and served as Attorney General during the 1960s. He is one of the few intellectuals at the Cabinet table, at home equally in Jewish and secular disciplines.

A Sephardi who will probably make the Presidency next time if not this time is Deputy Knesset Speaker Yitzhak Navon of the ex-Rafi wing of the Labor Party. Scion of an old established Jerusalem family, he is cultured and elegant, an able parliamentarian with a fine wit. But at 51 he is considered by many to be too young for the august position of President of the State (where the Prime Minister is 74). Navon narrowly lost to Yeshayahu in the poll for the Knesset Speaker last year and observers here-predict a great future still ahead of him.

Another candidate sometimes mentioned is the State Controller Itzhak Ernst Nebenzahi, 65. He was a law professor in Germany before coming to Israel in 1932 and is a member of the family which controls the multi-million Hollander Trading Company. Before becoming Controller in 1962, he served as honorary Swedish Consul in Israel and holds one of Sweden’s highest honors. His chances for the Presidency are impaired by his early association with the NRP. The Labor Party is expected to insist on a candidate from its, own ranks.

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