Australia/Israel Review

Battler President

Mar 1, 2005 | Tzvi Fleischer

A profile of Moshe Katsav

By Tzvi Fleischer

President Moshe Katsav

When Israel’s head of state, President Moshe Katsav, arrives for an official visit in Australia on Feb. 28, it will be symbolic of the excellent relations between Australia and Israel. It will also be an opporunity to forge new links in trade, scientific, political and security cooperation. So who is Moshe Katsav?

President Katsav, Israel’s eighth President in its almost 60-year history, is Israel’s first President to have been born in an Islamic country. He very much represents a success story among Israel’s Sephardic population, the nearly half of Israel’s Jews who immigrated from the ancient Jewish communities of the Middle East and North Africa, mainly in the 1940s and 50s.

Katsav was born in Yazd in Iran, but in 1951, at the age of 5, his family brought him to Israel. Like hundreds of thousands of other immigrants to Israel in the same period, his family underwent considerable hardship, as the nascent state of Israel, poor and still recovering from the considerable devastation of the War of Independence, struggled to cope with a doubling of its population in the space of a few years.

Upon arriving in Israel, the Katsav family was initially sent to a transit camp at Haifa before dispatched to an immigrant tent-camp in Israel’s south, inland from the port city of Ashdod. In the winter of 1951, severe flooding inundated the camp, and Moshe’s two month old brother Zion was killed. The children of the camp were hastily evacuated to neighbouring villages, and his parents did not know what had happened to 6-year-old Moshe for some days, until he was located staying with a family at the nearby agricultural village of Kfar Bilu.

Moshe and his family lived in a tent in the transit camp for two years. They then spent an additional four years in a one-and-a-half room temporary hut, before being moved to a small semi-detached permanent home. By then, the transit camp in which the Katsav’s had been living had been transformed into the “development town” of Kiryat Malachi (Town of Angels, named after the donations from the Jewish community of Los Angeles which had helped make the town possible.) Like the many such new development towns established across Israel in this period to house the huge waves of immigrants, Kiryat Malachi suffered from many social problems, including high unemployment and poverty, and limited social services. Moshe’s father worked as a laborer at a textile factory and an abattoir to support his nine children, of whom Moshe was the eldest.

After completing his education at the local high school and serving in the Israeli army in the signal corps, Moshe took a variety of jobs, including as a bank clerk, an assistant at an agricultural research station, and as a journalist for the large Israeli daily newspaper Yediot Ahronot. After having saved some money, he became the first person from Kiryat Malachi to study at University, travelling to Jerusalem to study economics and history at the Hebrew University. During his studies, Moshe became involved in student politics, and, while still studying, in 1969 ran for mayor of Kiryat Malachi. He won and at age 24, became the youngest ever mayor of an Israeli city. He continued to serve in municipal government in Kiryat Malachi until being elected to Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, for the victorious Likud party in 1977.

In 1981, he became Deputy Minister of Housing and Construction, and was subsequently Minister of Labor and Social Affairs, Minister of Transportation, and Deputy Prime Minister and Tourism Minister in various Likud and national unity governments.

In 2000, following the resignation of then-President Ezer Weizman as the result of a financial scandal, Katsav was selected as the Likud candidate for the presidency. He defeated veteran Labor Party statesman Shimon Peres by a vote of 63 to 57. (Israeli Presidents are elected by a secret ballot of all members of the Knesset.) He was sworn in for his seven-year term of office on August 1, 2000.

Accompanying President Katsav will be his wife of 35 years, Gila Katsav. After a thirty year career in banking, Gila has devoted herself to charity and volunteer work, especially in groups fighting domestic violence and promoting women’s rights, and providing aid and services to disabled children and children from disadvantaged homes.

Despite the fact that Israeli Presidents have only a largely ceremonial role, comparable to the Australian Governor- General, President Katsav has succeeded in devoting his presidency to an effort to heal rifts in Israeli society. As someone from a disadvantaged Sephardic backgrounds, he has had definite success in helping to ease some of the traditional resentments between the Sephardic Israelis, and the Jews of European origin who dominated Israel’s political and economic elites during the state’s first decades.

In addition, Katsav has tried to cool the clashes between religious and secular Jewish Israelis, and between Jewish and Arab Israelis. He is also credited with having helped to restore the tradition of the Israeli President being above politics, a tradition his mercurial predecessor, Ezer Weizman, occasionally had trouble maintaining. In fact, it is probably his expected ability to keep a carefully neutral and non-partisan profile that won him his election to the Presidency against Shimon Peres, about whom there were doubts that he would be able to remain apolitical.

Moshe Katsav is a very different sort of President to the suave former diplomat Chaim Herzog, the only past Israeli President to visit Australia. However, he represents a side of Israel that Australians don’t see often and are likely to find attractive, the battlers, as Australians like to put it. He is a very warm and talented individual who has come from the most disadvantaged background, through severe hardship, to reach his nation’s highest post and symbolise Israel. His visit should not only build on the already excellent bilateral relations, but also help remind Australians that Israel is far more than the conflict, terrorism, and diplomatic discussions generally seen on the nightly news.



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