The people want a president

The office is a unifying factor not only for the nation, but for the Jewish people worldwide.

The embarrassing chain of events resulting in a police investigation into the actions of Israel's number one citizen has once again called into question the need for a presidency. Going on the information, and misinformation, surrounding President Moshe Katsav and a former senior member of the Beit Hanassi secretarial staff, various legislators are not waiting for the police to publish their conclusions but are acting as judge and jury, demanding not only Katsav's resignation but an end to the institution of the presidency itself. Contending that Israel does not need a president, and certainly not one who brings shame upon the office and the state, they say that since the post is largely ceremonial and costs the taxpayer a lot of money, it ought to be abolished because it doesn't serve any real purpose. They could not be more wrong. As a journalist who has written about the presidents of Israel from Katzir to Katsav, with specific focus on Herzog and Katsav but also a fair amount of reporting on Navon and Weizman, I can testify to the importance of the presidency as a unifying factor not only for the nation, but for the Jewish people in general. Diaspora Jews cannot refer to the prime minister of Israel as their prime minister, but they can refer to the president of Israel as the president of the Jewish people. And that, indeed, is what he is. He (and perhaps one day she) is a conduit between the Diaspora and the Israeli establishment, bringing matters of Diaspora concern to the right quarters. The occupant of the office must constantly update himself on conversion issues, the recognition of all streams of Judaism, trends toward assimilation and intermarriage, the need for more Jewish education, the revitalization of Jewish life in the former Soviet Union, anti-Semitism in different parts of the world, and a plethora of other topics. ON THE home front he often goes to bat on behalf of those sectors of society who cannot find a willing ear in other places. He pays hospital visits to wounded soldiers and victims of terrorist attacks, and through his condolence calls brings comfort and a sense of the nation's appreciation to the bereaved families of all fallen soldiers. He also pays regular visits to both Jewish and Arab municipalities, especially those that are less in the public eye, and thereby enhances the status of those communities. This is but a very short list of all the activities in which the president is engaged, but it does serve to illustrate that in the absence of a king, the people want a president - someone above politics who can act as a father figure to the nation. A prime minister, though he does meet with some of the same people, cannot give them the same amount of time and attention as a president. On the international front, the Foreign Ministry can vouch for the goodwill toward Israel generated by official overseas visits by Israel's presidents. Numerous groups in Israel with good cause to complain about unfair treatment often fail to gain media attention or an appointment with a director-general of a government office. But the president's door is usually open to them. If they can give him a convincing argument, he in turn puts the wheels in motion for the matter to go further with a view to finding a solution. I have personally witnessed such appeals and heard presidents give instant instructions to senior members of staff to help the petitioners get to the people in government best suited to deal with their complaints. To whom would such groups turn in the absence of a president? OMBUDSMEN and the state comptroller's office do not act with the same degree of alacrity. They often allow bureaucracy to hinder their efforts. Even when there is not a problem at hand, evidence of the public's desire for a president is demonstrated each year on Succot when the president and his wife hold open house at Beit Hanassi. Thousands of people from all over the country, as well as tourists, stream in and wait in long queues to shake the president's hand. They pose eagerly for photographs with him and are visibly delighted when he initiates brief conversations with them. Influential Jews from abroad often make a point, when visiting Beit Hanassi, of posing for a personal photo with the president of Israel - because the display of such a photo when they go home adds to their prestige. Whether President Katsav completes his term as president or is forced to step down, elections are just around the corner because his term officially concludes at the end of July 2007. His successor will grow in stature, because the presidency in itself has that kind of effect on those who take on the mantle. However, in view of the fact that two successive presidents have been embroiled in controversies which cast a blot on the presidency, perhaps some new ground rules should be established before the next president is elected.