As President Shimon Peres’ term of office is winding down, attempts orchestrated by Binyamin Netanyahu to tamper with Israel’s presidency are gathering steam. First an effort was made to delay the vote — scheduled for next month at the latest. When this initiative backfired, the idea of canceling the presidency was aired. If not for the courageous opposition of a senior Likud minister, Gideon Sa’ar, (subsequently echoed by other coalition members), this notion would still be bandied about. Now, the Prime Minister is bent on canceling the one political power the president possesses — the ability to decide (following consultations with all parties) who will be the first leader after a national election to be charged with forming the next government.
While most eyes are now focused on the upcoming presidential elections in the Knesset, all indications are that preparations for altering the Basic Law on the Presidency will continue apace unless the public makes it abundantly clear that its patience for tampering with the fundamentals of its political system has reached its outermost limits. The general propensity to play with one of the few areas of government that is actually working suggests a broader disregard for the rules of the game, which the country can ill afford at this juncture. The specific suggestion now under consideration threatens to upset the very delicate balance ingrained in Israel’s parliamentary democracy. This patently misconceived idea should be jettisoned before it gathers any further momentum.
The position of head of state in parliamentary democracies, which constitute the vast majority of established democratic countries in the world today, was designed to fulfill several very clear roles. The most obvious is to distinguish between the office of the head of government — a political position — and that of the head of state, a symbolic role. The former is charged with responsibility for day-to-day affairs, the latter (be he or she a royal or a president), is assigned the largely ceremonial task of representing the cohesion of the collectivity over time. In effect, the position of head of state offers an important counterpoint to politicians; its existence is a critical check on the unbridled accumulation of power. For these reasons, presidents or monarchs in parliamentary democracies have become a major source of stability and the linchpin of trust in tumultuous times. By formally subjecting prime ministers to heads of state, a modicum of accountability is built into the system. Abolishing or ceaselessly adjusting the parameters of this office, therefore, constitutes nothing short of a pernicious (albeit extraordinarily subtle) attempt to remove the brakes on the amassment of unchecked power.
Now that the delusional idea of abolishing the office has been abandoned (the first involved the failed experiment with the direct election of the prime minister in the 1990s), the latest iteration of efforts to alter the nature of the presidency in Israel centers on stripping the president of the few residual powers he possesses today. By amending the basic law so that the head of the largest party automatically is given the task of forming the government, such a move would leave the head of state no discretion whatsoever. This may sound, at first, like a good idea, as it would seemingly reflect voter preferences. That is why the leaders of larger parties have applauded such a step for years and now back its constitutional entrenchment.
But a closer look at this proposal raises serious reservations. Historically, the power of the president at the critical stage of coalition construction has never been abused in the sixty-six years of Israel’s existence. In fact, the difference between coercing the president to call on the leader of the largest party to form a government and the current situation of giving the president the leeway to decide (following consultations with party leaders) who has the greatest probability of fulfilling this task has proven critical to Israeli governance time and again. Most recently, following the 2009 elections, President Peres passed over Tzipi Livni, the head of the largest party in the previous Knesset, and gave the nod to Binyamin Netanyahu, who led the second largest party in the Knesset, on the grounds that only the latter could form a workable coalition.
Rupturing the fine line between what a president should and could do has deep implications for Israel’s governability in the years ahead. First, such a change may adversely affect voting patterns, as larger parties will have a distinct advantage in appealing to the electorate. By extension, smaller parties will find themselves at a real disadvantage, since they do not field prime ministerial candidates. As a result, the proportional principle, which has ensured the highly representative nature of Israel’s democracy could be compromised.
Second, the stability inherent in the arrangement of dual (political and symbolic) leadership could be undermined, since the absence of discretion could put into office tenuous and exceptionally fractious coalitions. And, finally, the essential governability of the country could be jeopardised as the possibility of confrontational governments that lack adequate support in the Knesset would increase. Unless one sees this as a way to promote a transition to a fully presidential system, stymieing presidential powers simply makes no sense.
Given the likely damage to political stability, it really is not clear why Mr. Netanyahu is so fixated on changing the character of the presidency. Some pundits have highlighted personal explanations — especially the Prime Minister’s dislike for the leading candidates (which probably explains his ongoing search for a more amenable front-runner). Others have suggested that he wants to assure his next term in office not only by limiting the flexibility granted to anyone who occupies the presidential residence, but also by thereby deflecting potential challenges to his primacy within his own party. But behind these explanations looms something larger: a sense that he, as the political leader of the country, can effect such changes at will.
The crux of the problem in this relentless campaign is this: Democratic political systems are constructed to limit power, to ensure accountability and to provide for constant checks and balances. When these sensitive arrangements are subjected to the whims of those in office, the system as a whole is threatened. Sacrificing the long-term viability of Israel’s already fragile democratic structures to the short-term political aspirations of a single individual can throw the current order into a downward spiral with little prospect of resuscitation.
That is fundamentally why all the present attacks on the institution of the presidency should be halted before they get out of hand. Too many attempts to play with the system may render it inoperable. Clearly, the presidency is not one of the sources of the current malfunctioning of Israel’s democratic institutions. Trying to fix what isn’t broken is the best way to divert attention from the real problems of political praxis, corruption, violation of rights and contested identities that haunt the country today.
In this instance, then, the best possible scenario is to leave well enough alone. Unfortunately, unless a concerted, broad, non-partisan effort is made to make sure that efforts at presidential tampering are jettisoned once and for all, this latest version stands a chance of being enacted. For the sake of all of us, it can and must be stopped.