Analysis: Why be president, anyway?

The office of president is a position of great honor with almost no real power or responsibility.

October 18, 2006 02:11
Analysis: Why be president, anyway?

katsav 298.88. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)


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The presidential election season is all but officially open and already we have started to hear complaints - which will continue to be heard until a new head of state is selected - over the extremely limited field of candidates. Where are all the academic giants, goes the refrain, the distinguished jurists, the moral voices of our writers and poets, pioneering captains of commerce and industry? Where are the shining exemplars of Jewish genius and Israeli capability? Why are only over-the-hill political hacks willing to throw their hats into the presidential ring? The obvious answer is that it has always been this way. The office of president was devised as a way to get Zionism's elder statesman, Chaim Weizmann, out of David Ben-Gurion's way - hence the position of great honor with almost no real power or responsibility. Following Weizmann's death, Ben-Gurion tried to enhance the young country's prestige by recruiting Albert Einstein for the job, but the physicist preferred to remain in Princeton. The presidency retained its original role, providing a veteran senior politician who has given up hope of ever becoming prime minister with a glorified pension plan. The only president not to have been an active politician, Prof. Ephraim Katzir, was nevertheless a deeply committed member of the ruling Mapai party. In time, nonpolitical candidates realized that they were wasting their time even applying. The last one was Supreme Court deputy president Menahem Elon, who lost in 1982 to Labor MK Chaim Herzog. Since the president is elected by the Knesset in a secret ballot, serving MKs obviously have an inherent advantage, as the electors are their colleagues and they have ample opportunity for deal-making and arm-bending. But that's not the only reason for the scarcity of suitable candidates. The ignominious way that Ezer Weizman ended his presidency six years ago and the even more dismal circumstances surrounding what are most likely the last months of Moshe Katsav's term make it certain that potential presidents will also be ruthlessly investigated by the media, and possibly by the police. It won't only be hints of corruption and sexual peccadillos the reporters will be searching for; every possible scandal and controversy in the new president's past will be turned over and examined for specks of dirt. Even a candidate with nothing to hide would be extremely reluctant to subject themselves to the indignity and the risk. It's not only the fear of scandal that's keeping the best and brightest away. The presidency is supposed to be above politics, but the considerations of the Knesset members electing him or her are not restricted to a candidate's shining personality and many talents, but mainly reflect narrow political and personal interests. Calling presidential politics horse trading would be an insult to the flesh merchants. Why would a Nobel Prize laureate or retired Supreme Court president, after decades of an illustrious career, suddenly be attracted by the rough and tumble of party politics? And for what? The presidency might be a highly respected position (at least it used to be) and a mansion in the center of Jerusalem, limousines and plenty of fancy trips abroad go with the job - but for most of the prospective candidates, it would mean taking a seven-year leave from their rewarding and lucrative careers. This is apparently the reason that Prof. Amnon Rubinstein is planning to turn down Ehud Olmert's offer to become Kadima's candidate. For others, running would mean coming out of a comfortable retirement for a never-ending round of mind-numbing speeches and frosty diplomatic receptions. Seven years of living in a golden fishbowl, forever in the public eye, not allowed to say anything controversial or outside the consensus. Men and women of action and achievement might well find the presidency a waste of their precious time. That's why Aharon Barak and Meir Shamgar rebuffed all inquiries regarding their interest in the job after leaving the Supreme Court. Career politicians, however, accustomed to whiling away their years concerned with clinging to their seats and planning their next move up the greasy pole, would find it paradise. This is not true, of course, of all politicians. For active parliamentarians - those with a legislative agenda or who realistically aspire to a cabinet position or even the top job - being president would be a waste of time. But for every aging MK, there comes a realization that the days of political promise are over and the future holds nothing more than the all-too-familiar schedule of plenum, committee and faction meetings until eventually being ousted by a new generation of young Turks. For them, the presidency is definitely a preferred alternative. Of course, another drawback of running for president is that you might lose. A secret ballot is like playing at a casino: anything can happen and even the coalition's candidate, ostensibly supported by a majority of the Knesset, can be beaten, as Shimon Peres found out six years ago. This is one race in which there is no honorable second place. The loser can, of course, resume his former post, with a stature somewhat diminished, but is the chance of becoming president worth the potential humiliation of defeat? That's why most observers believe that Peres, despite being prompted to run again by a growing number of erstwhile political allies, won't risk a second round. Although, with Peres, you never know. Taking all this into consideration, it's hardly surprising that only a handful of politicians are showing interest in the job. The two declared candidates, Reuven Rivlin and Colette Avital, both tick all the boxes. After decades in public life, they seem reasonably confident that the press isn't going to find any skeletons in their closets. Neither are they afraid of dirty politics; they've been deep in the mud for years. Even if they manage to remain another term in Knesset, they have no prospect of becoming ministers. As backbench MKs, they can afford to lose the presidential race and, by competing, will have at the very least received much more than their usually meager portions of limelight. Unless a surprise candidate turns up, an unblemished saint willing to martyr him or herself on the altar of national service - and, of course, provided with the requisite backing - Rivlin, Avital or another politician past his prime will be Katsav's successor. The sad fact is that, aside from a small group of frustrated MKs, for the rest of Israelis leading productive and fulfilling lives becoming president would be just a nuisance and a waste of time.

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