As the election of Israel’s tenth president draws near, sounds are coming from the direction of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to the effect that the presidency ought to be abolished.
From what one gathers from the media, Netanyahu’s approach is neither based on a serious study of the office and its role in the Israeli democratic system, nor on a desire to cut state expenditure – if the latter were Netanyahu’s goal, he would certainly have taken a closer look at the budget of the prime minister’s residences first.
Netanyahu’s position is apparently based on two main factors: the tribulations he has experienced with outgoing president Shimon Peres, and his loathing of the candidate most likely to be elected to replace Peres since Silvan Shalom is supposedly no longer in the race – Reuven Rivlin.
During his seven-year presidency, Peres certainly did an excellent public relations job for Israel around the world by speaking out in favor of understanding and peace. However, while during Netanyahu’s second term as prime minister Peres also tirelessly assured the world that the prime minister would do his utmost to advance the peace process, since the current government was formed last year Peres has not concealed his disappointment with Netanyahu’s faltering on the peace issue, and around Independence Day went so far as to accuse Netanyahu of actually sabotaging negotiations that he (Peres) had carried out with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas three years ago.
We do not know what exactly happened three years ago, but we do know that in Israel the president, though usually a former politician, is supposed to be above politics, and is certainly not supposed to be actively involved in any political activities, peace negotiations included – especially not “private” peace negotiations. Peres might be a popular president, but he has undoubtedly diverged from the letter and spirit of the presidential office.
As to Rivlin, a black cat appears to have walked between Netanyahu and Rivlin during the latter’s second term as Speaker of the Knesset in the course of the 18th Knesset. The problem is apparently the fact that as Speaker Rivlin was not averse to fighting against political moves initiated by the coalition, or enjoying Netanyahu’s implicit support, which he perceived as inconsistent with Israel’s democratic system.
He also did his best to be partial and fair toward the Arab MKs, even in difficult situations, as for example after MK Haneen Zoabi participated in the Gaza flotilla in May 2010. Though Rivlin was and remains a loyal Likudnik, who rejects the two-state solution and favors Jewish settlement in Judea and Samaria, Netanyahu acted to prevent his being reelected Speaker of the Knesset in the 19th Knesset. Today it is said that if push comes to shove, he would prefer seeing Laborite Binyamin Ben-Eliezer in the president’s residence to Rivlin, and if the only way to prevent Rivlin from getting there is to abolish the presidency – so be it.
Fortunately, Netanyahu’s chances of abolishing the presidency before the new president is elected are extremely slim, because time is much too short to pass the necessary legislation; because the background of the proposal is not being received well in the relevant political circles; and simply because it is generally believed that the office of the president in Israel is important, even if the last three presidents – Ezer Weizman, Moshe Katsav and Peres – each against a different background, did not perform his official functions as they ought to be performed.
The president in Israel is in many respects a non-political figurehead, most of whose functions are of a ceremonial nature – receiving the credentials of foreign ambassadors on behalf of the Foreign Ministry, pardoning prisoners on the basis of the recommendation of the Justice Ministry, assigning the job of forming a new government after elections on the basis of strict rules that leave him barely any discretion, receiving foreign visitors, holding an open house on certain holidays (such as Succot), and giving (non-controversial) public addresses.
These are not functions that can be filled by the prime minister, who certainly does not have any time to spare for ceremonial activities, and is a political figure par excellence. These are all functions that in parliamentary democracies are filled by elected presidents or hereditary constitutional monarchs, and in those countries where there is an elected president, great importance is attached to ensuring that the persons elected are accomplished and revered public figures, who are far removed as possible from controversy or scandal.
Unfortunately, in Israel this does not seem to apply, perhaps because the president is elected by the 120 MKs and not by the general public. This suggests that it is not the presidency that ought to be abolished, but the system by which the president is elected that ought to be reformed.
However, I should like to highlight what I consider to be one of the most important functions a president can assume in Israel, though it is not formally part of his job description. The president, as a neutral figure in a highly divided society, is the ideal person to hold under his auspices serious deliberations on issues of public importance that are in dispute, and which the Knesset often has difficulty in dealing with decisively.
For example, back in 2005 the President’s Committee on the Examination of the Structure of the Governance in Israel (generally known as the Megidor Committee) held extensive deliberations on electoral reforms and reforms in the system of government, under the auspices of President Katsav, and published an impressive report. Unfortunately no one did anything to ensure that this report be brought to the Knesset for further deliberation and possible action.
However, the model is certainly a commendable one.
I can think of quite a few burning issues that if raised in the Knesset would simply end in a general rumpus, but could receive extremely serious and productive attention under the auspices of the president. For example, the issue of the appropriate balance between Israel being a Jewish and democratic state; the issue of finding the right balance between private and public enterprises, to ensure that private enterprises don’t rip off the public and prevent workers from organizing, and that public enterprises are not hijacked by over-powerful and occasionally corrupt labor committees that prevent necessary structural reforms; or the issue of how to deal with extreme radical groups in the country – whether from the Right, the Left, the haredi community, or the Arab community – and the questions of where one should set the lines, and how one should react when anyone crosses these lines.
The president of the state need not be directly involved in the deliberations, but he or she must believe this function to be important enough to warrant serious effort and investment of time.
My own preference regarding who ought to be elected as Israel’s tenth president, which I have already expressed in a previous article – either Reuven Rivlin, or retired Supreme Court justice Dalia Dorner – is affected by the prospect of him or her initiating such deliberations, seeing them through, and then pushing to have their conclusions adopted, or at least seriously debated by the Knesset.
The writer is a retired Knesset employee.