Being a diplomatic team player, not just Israel's president - opinion

This fusion of high stature with the absence of any real authority can make for a challenging combination.

 PRESIDENT ISAAC Herzog and his wife, Michal, build a snowman after last week’s snowfall in Jerusalem. (photo credit: HAIM ZACH/GPO)
PRESIDENT ISAAC Herzog and his wife, Michal, build a snowman after last week’s snowfall in Jerusalem.
(photo credit: HAIM ZACH/GPO)

President Isaac “Bougie” Herzog is at the center of some very serious diplomatic machinations. His three telephone conversations with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan have made him a pivotal figure in a possible Jerusalem-Ankara rapprochement. This is a remarkable achievement for someone who holds a largely ceremonial position.

More in keeping with the traditions of his office, earlier this week Isaac Herzog was in the Emirates, his presidential visit showcasing the newfound normalized ties between Israel and the UAE. Thirty years previously, his father, Israel’s sixth president, Chaim Herzog, visited Beijing in similar circumstances, that 1992 trip affirming what was then the newly established Sino-Israeli diplomatic relationship.

The institution of Israel’s presidency was designed for that sort of official state visit. Israel’s founding father and first prime minister David Ben-Gurion did not want to see an alternate center of power that could challenge the dominance of the elected government, insisting that the new Jewish state’s head of state be a purely ceremonial position.

Accordingly, the legendary Chaim Weizmann, architect of the Balfour Declaration and the leader of political Zionism between the two World Wars, complained that as Israel’s first president he had neither authority nor influence, often feeling irrelevant in the elegant solitude of his Rehovot residence.

But Israel’s head of state is not completely devoid of power, the president having the duty to choose a Member of Knesset to form a government. For the most part, this prerogative has also been largely ceremonial, in most cases it being obvious who is best positioned to establish a ruling coalition. Yet in the rare instances when election results have been equivocal, as has occurred several times in recent years, the president may have important impact on the political process.

President Reuven Rivlin is seen speaking at a ceremony honoring IDF soldiers killed in the Second Lebanon War, at Mount Herzl in Jerusalem on June 24, 2021. (credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)President Reuven Rivlin is seen speaking at a ceremony honoring IDF soldiers killed in the Second Lebanon War, at Mount Herzl in Jerusalem on June 24, 2021. (credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)

A case in point: devotees of former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu were convinced that Israel’s tenth president, Reuven Rivlin, was out to give Netanyahu’s opponents every advantage.

Another power of the president is the granting of pardons. In the Israeli practice this is done on the advice of, and in coordination with, the Ministry of Justice, so in some sense, here too the president is largely just rubber-stamping the decisions of the government’s legal bureaucracy.

But there have been situations when pardons have been controversial, demanding the president take a stand. In 1986, despite much criticism, Chaim Herzog famously granted pardons to Shin Bet officers involved in the Bus 300 murders and cover-up, believing that national security demanded closure on that ugly scandal.

Probably the most significant power of the Israeli president is not enshrined in law, but the ability to influence public opinion through what former American president Theodore Roosevelt called “the bully pulpit.”

In 1982, Israel’s fifth president, Yitzhak Navon, very effectively added his voice, possibly tipping the scale, in favor of establishing a judicial commission of inquiry to investigate Israel’s role in the Lebanese Phalangist massacre of Palestinians at Sabra and Shatila refugee camp in Beirut.

In 2007, Israel’s ninth president, Shimon Peres, went to Kafr Kassem, apologizing to the villagers for the massacre carried out there by Border Police during the 1956 war. Peres’s acknowledgment of this past Israeli wrongdoing had implications not just for the inhabitants of Kafr Kassem but for all Israelis, Jews and Arabs alike.

IN 2016, Reuven Rivlin addressed frictions within Israel’s heterogeneous society, proposing the establishment of a new partnership between the different sectors, Israel’s “four tribes” – the secular, National-Religious, ultra-Orthodox and Arab.

Yet, for the most part, the everyday job of Israel’s ceremonial head of state involves accepting the credentials of newly arrived ambassadors, paying respects to bereaved families, swearing in judges, receiving Jewish delegations from abroad, celebrating good citizenship, commending outstanding soldiers and visiting different communities across the country (as well as posing for the traditional photograph of building a snowman during cold Jerusalem winters).

Herein lies the paradox: Israel’s president enjoys high visibility and much prestige, but has no serious decision-making responsibilities, not in determining government policy, not in allocating budgets, not in legislating laws. Moreover, the position, while supposedly above the day-to-day political fray, is usually held by a former politician who is free from the worries of reelection, the law limiting the president to one single seven-year term.

This fusion of high stature with the absence of any real authority can make for a challenging combination, the constraints and contradictions of the presidency at times overly burdensome for a relevancy-seeking public official.

An example: Israel’s eighth president, Moshe Katsav (later jailed for rape) represented the Jewish state at the Rome funeral of Pope John Paul II in 2005, exactly the sort of task a ceremonial head of state should perform. Vatican protocol seated Katsav nearby Iranian president Mohammad Khatami who, like Katsav, was born in the Iranian province of Yazd. Katsav told the press afterwards that he shook Khatami’s hand and spoke with him in Farsi, though Khatami denied the exchange.

Needless to say, Katsav’s initiative was spontaneous, uncoordinated with the Prime Minister’s Office and the Foreign Ministry. Officials with responsibility for Israel’s national security were critical of the president’s behavior, believing his actions overly motivated by a desire for headlines.

Although in a very different league: At a White House ceremony in 2012, Barack Obama bestowed upon Shimon Peres the Presidential Medal of Freedom. At the time, Obama was running for reelection, and although having a testy relationship with the government of Netanyahu over differences on Iran and the Palestinians, the American president was eager to exhibit his pro-Israel credentials.

By honoring Israel’s president in a high-profile ceremony, Obama could display friendship for the Jewish state while avoiding contentious policy issues, with Peres in return receiving precious Oval Office access and a very prestigious decoration. While Peres undoubtedly believed his actions genuinely served Israel’s national interests, he was still ostensibly enabling a strategy to circumvent the elected government in Jerusalem.

So far, Isaac Herzog has demonstrated consummate presidential behavior. Instead of rushing to accept Erdogan’s invitation to visit Turkey, which would be the first of its kind since Peres visited in 2007 prior to the crisis in Jerusalem-Ankara relations, Herzog chose to coordinate his steps with the prime minister and foreign minister, understanding that the diplomatic delicacy of the matter demands such a visit – which appears likely – reflects the considered approach of the government. Unlike some of his predecessors, Herzog rightly appreciates that even Israel’s exalted First Citizen should not have his own independent foreign policy.

The writer, formerly an adviser to the prime minister, is a senior visiting fellow at the INSS. Follow him at @MarkRegev on Twitter.