Do we really need a president anyway?

In his six years of serving as president, Moshe Katsav has received almost universal praise for his respectable conduct and the mainly consensual initiatives he has promoted. Beneath the platitudes, there was an underlying sense of relief that he "was no Ezer." After the stormy term of his predecessor, the gaffe-prone Weitzman, who had an insatiable appetite for baiting prime ministers and journalists and who was finally forced out of the job after the Saroussi scandal - where he was found to have accepted illegal donations from a mysterious businessman - Katsav returned a much needed atmosphere of calm and propriety to the presidency. There were no tangible achievements to point to, but then no one expected any. The fact that he had remained aloof from the political minefield was enough. But even before the latest round of suspicions currently engulfing the presidency, over the last couple of months, Katsav seemed to be losing his untouchable aura of respectability. There was the fracas with the American Reform Movement where Katsav had refused to call their religious leaders "HaRav," the overtly political criticism levelled concerning the government's decision-making in an interview with The Jerusalem Post two weeks ago, and in the background, steady rumors that he was preparing his political comeback for a year from now when his term ends. Senior Likud members have been talking ever since the elections of the distinct possibility of Katsav taking advantage of Binyamin Netanyahu's unpopularity and running for the party leadership. The president, of course, insisted that he was not involved in politics in any way but he has been turning up lately at weddings and bar mitzvas of Likud members and staying around for quite a while. Whether the current scandal blows over or casts a pall over Katsav's last year as president, it can hardly be said any more that the beleaguered institution has regained its respectability. A few weeks ago, speculation was rife over a series of senior figures who were being considered, or considering themselves, as presidential candidates. Some of them will now probably be having second thoughts, seeing the media's newfound appetite for presidential scandals. But perhaps the main question shouldn't be any particular candidate's suitability for the job, but rather whether Israel really needs a president in the first place. The job was originally created for the Zionist movement's elder statesman, Haim Weitzmann (Ezer's uncle) and it was mainly David Ben-Gurion's method of getting him out of the way. Weitzmann grumbled that he was a prisoner in his own home but the position endured. After Weitzmann's death, Ben-Gurion offered the presidency to Albert Einstein, more with the aim of enhancing the image of the young state than out of any real intention of giving the world's most famous physicist a role in Israel's leadership. Einstein quite rightly preferred his comfortable existence in leafy Princeton and the job went to Yitzhak Ben-Zvi. Since then all the presidents, save for the scientist Professor Ephraim Katzir, who was also well connected with the Labor movement, have been veteran politicians. Candidates from academia like Yossef Rivlin, Yitzhak Shave and Menahem Elon, all lost in the secret ballot. Most of the would-be presidents who are currently jockeying to succeed Katsav are also veteran politicians, like MKs Reuven Rivlin and National Infrastructures Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, for example. (Often mentioned candidates ex-Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau and soon to be ex-Supreme Court President Aharon Barak are also veteran politicians in all but name.) That didn't mean that the position had any real political relevance. The round of consultations traditionally held by the president with party leaders after each election is no more than ceremonial. Katsav could barely hide his exasperation three months ago when, while he was meeting each party's delegation, Ehud Olmert and Amir Peretz were already meeting secretly to draw up their coalition agreement. The amendment voted upon in the Knesset in 2001 necessitating a minimum of 61 Knesset members in a noconfidence motion supporting an alternative candidate, before the government can be toppled, bolstered the position of prime minister and further limited the president's authority since he has no choice on whom to bestow the job of forming a new government. That amendment allowed Ariel Sharon to carry on running the country for the last two years of his premiership even when it was clear that he had lost the confidence of most of the Likud's members. The fact that an Israeli prime minister, once he's been voted in, can continue to rule, push through controversial policies, fire rebellious ministers and juggle coalition combinations, even when his own party is routinely voting against him and he has no functional majority in the Knesset, means that for all purposes we already have a presidential style of government. The titular president's powers are merely symbolic and devoid of any real substance, like the Queen of England but without the palaces, the royal guards and the tabloid scandals - and now we have the latter as well. One could argue, as the royalists do in Britain, that the head of state is a focal point of identity for all the citizens at times of political turmoil and social strife. But could anyone with total honesty say that Katsav, even before his recent troubles, or any other previous president for that matter, commanded such a position of authority and respect as to bring our fractious nation together? So what's left for the president of Israel? He still signs clemency orders for convicted criminals, but even then he's usually rubberstamping the recommendation of the Justice Ministry and his signature is subject to intervention by the Supreme Court. He saves the prime minister from many bothersome engagements, like receiving new ambassadors and swearing in new judges, and graces important functions with his presence (where his security detail is much smaller than the prime minister's. The president doesn't seem to be very high on the terrorists' hit-list). All this costs us about NIS 27 million a year, admittedly not the most wasteful item on the state budget, but seeing that politicians (like chief rabbis and presidents of the Supreme Court) already have generous pension plans, perhaps the money could be better used elsewhere.