Legal Affair: Tainted tenure

The investigation into allegations of sexual misconduct by President Moshe Katsav spotlights a larger issue about the office in general.

September 21, 2006 22:36
Legal Affair: Tainted tenure

katsav 88. (photo credit: )


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There is a lesson to be learned from the case of President Moshe Katsav that goes far beyond the personality of the man himself.The scandals that have marred the office of the presidency during the tenures of the last two people to hold the job, Katsav and Ezer Weizman, have raised questions about whether such a function is at all necessary in a parliamentary democracy. Be that as it may, the fact that the last two presidents have caused so much damage - even if there is absolutely no truth to a single allegation against Katsav - is not reason in itself to abolish the office. The president is meant to fulfill a primarily symbolic role: A man who is above politics, who embodies the fundamental solidarity of the nation underlying the sectoral, religious, ethnic, cultural and ideological rifts that preoccupy the people in their day-to-day lives. The president is also meant to personify the dignity of the country in international relations. It is not his job to fight it out with the political leaders of other countries over matters of international policy and conflicting national interests on the burning issues of the day, but to represent the grace in these relations. In order to be able to fill these functions, the president must be held in genuine and heartfelt esteem by the nation as a whole. In other words, not just anyone can be a symbol. Obviously, the Knesset that elected Katsav to be president did so prior to the sexual allegations that have surfaced against him in the last two months. And he would never have been considered for the office had the MKs been presented with such allegations. On the other hand, there was nothing so sterling in Katsav's political career or particularly charismatic about the person himself that would have justified electing him president if the presidency's original raison d'etre had been kept in mind by those same MKs. It was certainly known that Katsav was a tough politician; that he was surrounded by a group of cronies who did the "dirty work" most politicians need to have done in order to advance; that he made political appointments - like most politicians; and that he came down hard on his enemies. As is the case with most politicians, Katsav's world did not extend much farther than the narrow confines of the political world. He may have symbolized the Sephardic newcomer from a development town who became a successful mayor and broke through the steel wall of the Ashkenazi elite, but he did not stand out as a national leader. Katsav was elected president for two reasons. First, he was the Likud's representative in a political battle against Labor's candidate, Shimon Peres. Second, the electorate consisted of people exactly like Katsav, people who regarded political tactics as legitimate - people who also used force when they could, appointed their aides to jobs when they could, and pulled out all the stops to beat their rivals in other parties. FROM A public point of view, Katsav has made a good president. He has, in general, been careful to say the right things, not to be controversial, not to stand out and not to exceed the prerogatives of his role, as his predecessor, Weizman, did. But it would be going too far to say that he brought stature to the office. Sexual peccadilloes are not the monopoly of politicians. Anyone of any social class or profession may be guilty of rape, indecent behavior or sexual harassment. That is not the point. The point is that there was no serious attempt to find a candidate who would be suitable for the job of representing the entire nation, no vetting, no search team, no basic criteria. No nothing. The choice of the president of the people is, at the end of the day, a matter that is left up to the chairmen of the parties with the largest representation in the Knesset. And because their frame of reference is so narrow, they have, as the years have gone by, tended increasingly to remain within the confines of their own parties. Just look at who is the front-runner in the race to succeed Katsav. None other than Likud MK Reuven Rivlin. This does not mean to say that there aren't politicians, who - despite the viciousness of their battle for survival - have not managed to maintain an integrity that goes beyond politics. Sadly enough, there are only a few of them. It is possible that if a vetting committee had carried out a serious investigation of Katsav - and Peres and anyone else mooted for the position of the president - the allegations against him might have emerged before, rather than after, he was elected. Those politicians who are so critical of the system for electing judges might learn a thing or two from it. Even if one were to accept their argument that the judges have too powerful a say in the selection process, at least the names of the candidates are published three weeks in advance and the public has the opportunity to express their opinions and object to the choice. Furthermore, a successful candidate must first pass the scrutiny of a sub-committee of the Judges' Selection Committee and the plenary committee itself. Is there anything that compares to this system when it comes to electing the president? The answer is no. There is another, perhaps even more important, lesson to be learned from the Katsav affair. There is a strong group of MKs who want to undermine the power of the Supreme Court by establishing a Constitutional Court to deal with matters of judicial review of Knesset legislation. After all, they say, the Supreme Court is a narrow, elitist group that perpetuates itself and does not represent the people. We represent the people, they say. But in the way it has handled its responsibility for choosing the president of the state, the Knesset has proven that it is driven by narrow, parochial, political interests, and that it is unwilling or unable to rise above them. The only consolation: the knowledge that the moral (or criminal) conduct of a president cannot do much serious damage - the victims themselves notwithstanding - other than to the morale of the nation.

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