Autobiography of Israel's fourth president, relating his story as a youth, member of the "Haganah", scientist and polition and the story of the development of the state of Israel.
Suddenly, Head of State
“Long live the President of the State of Israel!” the Knesset speaker proclaimed in festive tones and “Ye’hi! Ye’hi! Ye’hi!” came the equally festive response from the Knesset floor and the gallery.
Rationally, I knew these cries were addressed to me. I wasn’t Saul setting out in search of asses and, out of the blue, finding a kingdom. It was the 25th of May 1973. More than two months had passed since the Labor Party center decided to present my candidature for state president and more than a month since I was elected by secret ballot in a plenary session of the Knesset. I had already been to a few parties in my honor and had also held a number of talks with the outgoing president. Enough time, it would seem, to get accustomed to the idea that I was appointed “to stand at the head of the state”, to use the legal terminology. Even time enough to reflect on what I would do during my period in office. Nevertheless, I found myself wondering if it was really I who was being referred to as “His Excellency the President”; if indeed I would be seated in the chair first occupied by Chaim Weizmann, almost twenty five years earlier.
In retrospect, I realize that I was somewhat intimidated by this link with Weizmann. When I arrived in the country as a child, Chaim Weizmann was already president of the World Zionist Organization and, as such, the most senior leader of the Jewish people. Furthermore, as I knew from my own early reading, he had already won international recognition for his scientific achievements. In Eretz Yisrael (British mandate Palestine) his work in founding the Hebrew University on Mount Scopus, where I eventually studied, was one of his most significant achievements.
On the eve of the establishment of the State of Israel, I was happy to be included in the research institute that was established around Weizmann in Rehovot. (I learned only afterwards that he had wanted to dismiss me for something he regarded as unforgivable – of which more, later). Somehow, in his presence, I had always felt like a student standing before his rabbi-mentor. Now, here I was – chosen to be his successor.
At the end of 1952, immediately following Weizmann’s death, the state presidency was offered to Albert Einstein – a step doomed to failure from the outset, but one that revealed the importance the founders of the State attached to this high office. I recalled the eminent status of Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, who was elected after Einstein’s refusal, and of Zalman Shazar who succeeded him and I was profoundly honored to be appointed their successor.
I was a generation younger than Shazar; younger than the prime minister and most of the ministers and members of Knesset who cheered me for two or three minutes. I was aware that the country was blessed with many intellectuals and men of action splendidly recorded on the pages of our history-in-the-making; men and women who had contributed much more to Israeli society than I had.
A mere seventeen days had passed since I sat beside Ben-Gurion on the reviewing platform at the 25th Independence Day parade – am I their president? Am I the man chosen to symbolize Israeli sovereignty for the Jewish people and the world as a whole? Would I know how to do it, how to walk the winding path between the abundant prestige and the drawbacks of the authority granted to the president by the legislature? Could I rise above the many controversies in Israeli society without relinquishing my own opinion?
I gave some expression to these feelings and musings in the speech I delivered immediately after I swore to be “loyal to the State of Israel and its laws and faithfully perform my duty”. Among other things, in that speech I said –
In all that I will do, the wonderful personalities and blessed deeds of my predecessors will stand before me … In Rehovot I had the privilege of studying under the first president, the late Chaim Weizmann … an exceptional individual, a man of action who performed great works in paving the way to the founding of the State of Israel. Our second president, the late Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, was exemplary in his pioneering spirit, his modesty and his talent for winning the hearts of the Tribes of Israel. Our third president, Zalman Shazar … I met when I was a youth in the Labor movement … we drank his every word thirstily and read his books and articles. With admiration and wonder, I kept track of his actions as Zionist leader, writer, editor, minister of education and state president.
… We are faithful to our awareness of the shared destiny of the scattered Jewish people … We will delve into our people’s history and learn from the past to know ourselves. A proper combination of knowing the sources of Judaism and comprehension of the modern world will enrich us spiritually and morally and will assist us in coping more effectively and more wisely with the particular as well as the general problems of our times.
We will strengthen our ties with the Diaspora. The State is a source of pride and inspiration to Jews wherever they are and they are our constant
allies, a source of encouragement and fraternal help. We will call on Jews to immigrate and together we will build our state as a society in which the values and expectations of the best of our pioneers and thinkers will be realized.
Let us not ignore the troubling social phenomena in the world today. The accelerated pace of modern life is accompanied by evidence of alienation between man and his fellowman and man and his environment. This evidence of materialism, negativity and social gaps is not diminishing and many children do not acquire the care and education they deserve … We must work to bridge the ethnic divide, obliterate social polarization and raise the level of the limited means sectors. We … must strive for improved social amenities and landscapes that are good and pleasant to live in.
In his address to the Knesset at his swearing-in ceremony, our first president, Chaim Weizmann, said: “I have labored and striven all my life to make science and research the foundation of our national enterprise. But I have always been well aware that over and above science there are sublime values which alone hold the cure for the afflictions of humanity – justice, integrity and fraternity”.
May it be granted me to follow in the footsteps of my predecessors and, like them, exalt Israel and shape the presidential institution as a symbol of our nation and the supreme values that we have crystallized throughout the generations and that continue to exist and be renewed in our times.
In the above address, I mentioned my older brother Aharon and quoted what he wrote in his book, Bekur Hamahapecha Hamada'it (Heb. In the Crucible of the Scientific Revolution): “for us, there is no [way of] being without the humanistic and moral values that are the basic foundation of the State of Israel. For what purpose was this state established, if not for the consolidation of humanistic ideals and for the implementation of the values that the Jewish people has carried in its heart for many generations?” Aharon, the man closest to me, who more than anybody else influenced me on the path I chose, who guided me to the natural sciences in the clear knowledge that I must not shut myself away in the ivory tower of academe, was killed almost a year earlier in a terrorist attack on Lydda airport. I had no doubt that in my new role I would ask myself, time and again, what Aharon would have said and done in one or another situation; how he would have advised me to act at this unique junction in my life, catapulted there by my election to the presidency.
Yes, catapulted! Only a few months earlier, I could not have imagined being asked to be the state president, let alone giving my consent. I was up to my neck in engrossing scientific work that gave me immeasurable satisfaction. With my colleagues and students in the biophysics department of the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot, I was wrestling with a number of problems in the study of the building blocks of living creatures, conducting experiments and analyzing their results. To the best of my ability, I was keeping track of the mountains of innovations in the professional literature. I attended scientific lectures and conferences all over the world. I tried to establish reciprocity between basic research and applied research. Besides, I was involved in shaping state policy regarding research and development, in my capacity as chief scientist of the defense system in 1966-1968 and, in 1969, as chairman of the committee for government owned research institutes, which proposed widespread reforms. Although not foreign to me, the corridors of power held no attraction. I was happy to place my qualifications at the disposal of the state as long as I was called upon to do so. I regarded this as the natural extension of my generation’s efforts to promote the Zionist enterprise. But to be president? To be the establishment’s man, in theory, but to be head of the establishment – a “full-time job”?
The answer to these questions came via a combination of what may be called random circumstances.
At the beginning of 1973, some politicians had a look at the calendar and discovered that President Zalman Shazar’s second term of office was due to end in a few months. Nine years earlier, the Knesset decided that a person who had served as state president “for two consecutive terms” could not be elected immediately afterwards to a third term – obviously because of an unjustified fear that the president would amass too much power – thus making it necessary to elect a new president. Having the Labor Party at the helm of government seemed almost to be a law of nature at the time; at a glance, it appeared that Labor’s candidate for president would be chosen in a plenary session of the Knesset. After all, from the beginning this was the expected sequence in the presidential history of the State of Israel. The first three presidents – Chaim Weizmann, Yitzhak Ben-Zvi and Zalman Shazar – were candidates from Mapai (the birth-mother of the Labor Party). However, the party leader, Prime Minister Golda Meir, was not certain that it would be so, this time. Even if the famous 1977 upheaval had not yet appeared on the horizon, Golda Meir, with her sharpened senses, concluded that things would not be so simple. Israel had already known a national unity government (which broke the taboo excluding the Herut Movement from government), the religious parties’ attachment to the Labor Party was weakening and various peculiar political alliances seemed possible. In short, the fear that the presidential seat would be occupied for the first time by a “stranger” – not “one of us” – began to bother Golda Meir, as well as two of her closest senior associates. Finance Minister Pinchas Sapir and Yisrael Galili (who, in spite of being minister without portfolio, left nobody in doubt of his senior status in the government) shared her apprehensiveness and the feeling that something had to be done.
Beyond this, it emerged that Golda Meir – a strong-minded, vigorous woman who was close to 75 years old – had to confront a psychological problem, in 1973. Although the presidential incumbent could not challenge her authority as prime minister, she still had to acknowledge his seniority in terms of ceremonial procedures, was obliged to report to him on various issues and had to answer all questions he put to her. As long as Shazar was the president in question, a decade older than she and counted among the veteran leaders of the Labor movement, she coped well with the situation. However, Shazar’s successor was clearly younger than Golda Meir, with less public prestige. Therefore, it was thought that she would come to terms with the possibility of presenting herself to “His Excellency the President” only if the man brought to the role some added value that she could respect. The names that began to come up in the media and the political arena did not quite fit this criterion, but apparently Golda Meir found it especially difficult to accept the person who was beginning to look like the candidate most acceptable to members of the Labor Party center.
This was Yitzhak Navon, member of Knesset and vice-speaker at the time. Fifty two years old, he was born in the country, he was full of charm and was an eloquent, colorful speaker. He attached great importance to his work in the past as David Ben-Gurion’s right hand man and office chief. Many even remarked, at the time, that this was an opportunity to place a member of the Sephardi community at the summit of the state and mollify to some extent the sense of discrimination prevalent among some ethnic sectors. I got to know Yitzhak Navon very well in Jerusalem, in the ‘thirties; for a certain period I was also his commander in the Haganah. I felt much affection for him and, as I told members of the press not long afterwards, had I been a member of the center of Labor Party I would of course have voted for him. However, all Yitzhak Navon’s qualifications were apparently not enough for Golda Meir. She seemed about to be saddled with a president who, among other things connected to the past, used to be “just” Ben-Gurion’s assistant. According to all the signs, it was obvious then and certainly in retrospect, that she was determined to prevent this possibility and to oppose him with another candidate whose election in the party center and later in the Knesset could be ensured. Not surprisingly, her supporters Sapir and Galili rushed to her aid. They themselves were not enthusiastic about having a member of the Rafi faction (that later merged with the Labor Party) suddenly at the head of the state; somebody who was more than a decade younger than both of them and also their junior in the political arena.
The three – Meir, Sapir and Galili – were sharp enough to realize that the candidate must come from outside the political system without being completely cut off from it, and their thoughts turned to the academic sector. Apparently, they regarded the title "professor" as sufficiently respectable to carry a certain aura and even stir associations with the first president, chemist Chaim Weizmann. Later, I jokingly remarked that if I failed as president, the prime minister and her colleagues could always excuse themselves by claiming: “but he understands science”.
All that remained for Golda Meir and her associates was to find themselves a “professor” who was not-absolutely-unknown and was more or less connected to the Labor Party. One of them mentioned my name. In due time, my longtime friend Naomi Zuckerman told me that the main reason my name came up was the fact that her older sister Aviva and I were classmates when we were students at the Hebrew University. Apparently, their mother liked me very much and wanted me to marry Aviva (who eventually became professor of parasitology at the Hebrew University’s medical school). Naomi claimed that I was very favorably mentioned in conversations between her mother and her close friend Golda (then Meyerson) Meir – who had not forgotten it. One way or another, I was launched as a possible presidential candidate before anyone bothered to ask for my opinion on the matter.
I will not be guilty of excessive modesty in repeating that any thought of the presidency was totally foreign to me and it never occurred to me to compete for candidature against anyone in the party. In fact, when everyone in the upper echelons of the Labor Party was running around in an attempt to find the man to block Navon’s path to the presidency, I was overseas. In any case, I was out of touch with the people pulling the strings.
Early in March 1973, I placed the running of the biophysics department in the hands of my colleague, Professor Nathan Sharon, and embarked on a tour of lectures and meetings in the USA. As always, I enjoyed the direct contact with acquaintances, chemists and biologists in the best laboratories on the east and west coasts. I discussed their work with them and reported on our achievements in Rehovot. Together we tried to clarify which problems took precedence in life sciences research and to discover what was to be understood from our applications. I have always known that, even in the era of the scientific literature explosion, there is no substitute for direct debate among scientists and no other way to be really up-to-date about developments in research.
During the day I experienced much pleasure and satisfaction, but in my hotel room in the evening, the telephone never stopped ringing with news from Israel, concerning the presidency. At first, the politicians spoke to me. Golda Meir, Pinchas Sapir and Yisrael Galili were joined by Labor Party secretary, Aharon Yadlin, soon followed by Abba Eban, who was the current foreign minister and a past president of the Weizmann Institute. He tried to persuade me to agree to the prime minister’s suggestion. A few days later, a figure from an entirely different league entered the picture. Sensing that time was running out, Pinchas Sapir approached Meyer Weisgal, then chancellor of the Weizmann Institute. Even in those early days, Weisgal’s title was not enough to encompass or define his status and influence within the Institute and among all who knew him. Weisgal, who was able to enchant both tough tycoons and eminent scientists, who was not deterred by any obstacle to any goal he set for himself, listened to Pinchas Sapir and was inspired. I don’t know exactly what convinced him to ensure my election to the presidency. Maybe he thought that for several reasons it was a fine idea for the Weizmann Institute to produce yet another president, after Chaim Weizmann. Maybe he enjoyed the opportunity to be involved in decisions of state. Maybe he was doing it for my sake. Maybe all these reasons and a few more came together in his mind. Anyway, his steamroller began to press its full weight on me. Over and over, speaking in juicy Yiddish, the language he used with me from the day we met and throughout our friendship, he explained how important it was for me to accept the proposal. Over and over, he emphasized that he would do everything in his power to prevent the state presidency from cutting me off from my scientific work.
“I will explain to Sapir what you require”, Weisgal promised me, “and you know that I know how to get what’s necessary from him”. Indeed, in one of our conversations, Sapir told me more or less in these words: “if you need a laboratory in the presidential residence, no problem. I’ll arrange it. There’s plenty of room”. When I explained that my scientific work was not conducted in a single laboratory and added, almost without thinking, that I needed a whole institution, Sapir answered that we could reach an agreement on that, too.
In the end, I surrendered to the telephone pressure and on the 19th of March, I replied from Boston that I was ready to serve as state president for five years – one term. They did not conceal their satisfaction and from the tone of the conversation I understood that my candidature from the Labor Party center was assured. Naïvely, I thought that the presidential candidate did not have to run the political gauntlet and did not realize that if the political party backing him failed to rally around him, it would be a serious drawback. Since I was not in the country at the time, I did not know that support for Yitzhak Navon was as strong as ever. Nor did I guess that party center members were being energetically courted by those who wanted me, as well as by those who backed Navon, amid mutual accusations of the usual kind on such occasions. However, by the time I realized exactly what was going on, it was too late to upset the apple cart. I received 321 votes in the secret ballot (56% of the members) to Navon’s 252 votes (44% of the members). Afterwards, in the open vote, I was unanimously elected. I learned this within a short time, by telephone.
The American secret service entered the picture, giving added weight to the event. A few days prior to the voting at the party center, I had gone to live in the home of my good friend, Alex Rich. He had made a name for himself by his research in nucleic acids and was one of the leading molecular biologists at MIT. I was surprised one morning to discover that a unit of manly fellows had been appointed as my bodyguards, grossly intruding on the neighbors’ freedom of movement. It soon emerged that someone in Washington had decided that the Israeli presidential candidate was a likely assassination target and that steps had to be taken accordingly. This close supervision was withdrawn only after my wife Nina came to Boston and we both left for Israel.
Awaiting me beside the gangway at Ben-Gurion airport were Prime Minister Golda Meir and a number of senior members of the Labor Party. There was no longer any doubt that a real change had taken place in my life.
Two weeks remained until the Knesset vote. Meanwhile, another candidate for the presidency entered the running. The opposition Gahal faction together with the Mafdal faction that was a partner in the coalition, announced their support for Professor Ephraim Elimelech Urbach of the Hebrew University. He was one of the leading Israeli researchers in Judaic studies and a longtime acquaintance of mine. There was something astonishing about this move. Labor Party circles were weighing the possibility of presenting him as a candidate for the presidency if the pressure on me came to nothing. This, in spite of the fact that Urbach’s own political philosophy was very far from that of the two parties who had decided almost at the last moment to place him in the running for the high office. On the contrary, he missed no opportunity to declare publicly that he preferred national wholeness to territorial wholeness. Long before he was a professor, he was an ordained rabbi. In WWII he was one of the handful of rabbis in the Jewish Brigade, which fought together with the British forces. As an observant Jew, he disagreed more than once with the religious parties’ views regarding religion and state; he resigned from Mafdal in the mid-’sixties on ethical grounds. Apparently, the politicians who backed him estimated that in a secret ballot he would manage to draw the votes of some members of Knesset who could not be relied on to support me. Urbach, whose personality, erudition and incisiveness have won my respect, agreed to be a candidate on the grounds that democracy demanded freedom of choice. With his great wisdom and because he was well acquainted with political reality, he estimated in advance that his chances of defeating me were slim and behaved nobly all the way. Our relationship remained unblemished afterwards, too.
On the 10th of April, following the first vote, Knesset speaker Yisrael Yeshayahu announced the results: 66 in my favor and 41 in favor of Urbach, 9 abstentions and 4 absent. Yeshayahu then added that I had authorized him to announce that I had Hebraized my name. My brother Aharon had already changed his name from Kachalsky to Katzir in 1957 and now, on being elected president, I followed suit.
A few months after my inauguration, I found myself president of a nation at war – the Yom Kippur War, one of the worst in our history. In the last six months of my term of office, I became the first president to welcome an Arab ruler to Israel – Egyptian President, Anwar Sadat. Indeed, I participated in the process that gave birth to the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt. Between the two poles of war and peace I have gained a wealth of agitating and moving experiences and, therefore, I have never for a moment regretted surrendering to the pressure and agreeing to move from laboratory to president’s residence. Incidentally, more than once I have found myself looking back in wonder at the story of my life, trying to fathom what determined its course.