Israel can do away with the presidency and replace it with a Ministerial Presidential system. This would prevent political mischief, save the costs associated with the office (security, staff, and travel), and the potential costs of direct election.

This is the second part in a series on reform of the Israeli presidency, for more background see Presidential Chess.

The Ministerial President

A few weeks ago, I was a guest speaker at a local synagogue. The issue of the Israeli presidency came up and someone asked what would happen if the Israeli presidency was eliminated. Prime Minister Benjaimin “Bibi” Netanyahu recently proposed a rushed reform to have the presidency directly elected, or done away with. What would replace the presidency? How would such a government function? What would such a system be called? What would it mean for Israel?

In answer to the question the audience member had posed, I explained the role of the Israeli President and began to describe the limited powers of the office. I realized that, like the American Vice Presidency, the office is largely redundant. All at once, I also realized that I had no answers as to what would replace the office. Every parliamentary system has a separate head of state, based upon the traditional role of European monarchs. Since no parliamentary government without a separate head of state exists at present, it is difficult to articulate how such a system could function. I had to turn to my bookshelf for answers.

According to Presidential Versus Parliamentary Government (ed. A. Lijphart, Oxford University Press, 1992), such a government is called a Ministerial Presidential system. It involves a Prime Minister who is also the head of state, and no separate President, Queen, or Supreme Leader. The Prime Minister, now both head of state and head of government, must continue to rely on the majority of the legislature like any current parliamentary head of government.

Could Israel adopt this form of government? What reforms would be necessary to make this possible? Honestly, it would require very little change at all and would minimally impact Israeli politics, all thanks to reforms that the Knesset enacted earlier this year. Maintaining a perpetual government is the main challenge.

The no-confidence vote is the primary source of insecurity in a parliamentary system; the legislative majority can simply oust the government. In a ministerial presidential system this would mean no government whatsoever. In Israel this is no longer the case.

In March, the Knesset adopted several reforms including an affirmative vote of confidence. Under the new law, a vote of confidence motion must seek not only to unseat the current government, but must propose a candidate to form the next government. If a Member of the Knesset wanted to unseat Prime Minister Netanyahu, they would not only call for a vote of confidence but they would also have to propose an alternative, say Isaac Herzog the new leader of the Labor Party. It is always easier to vote against a government then to vote at once for a replacement. Under this law, once established, there will always be a Prime Minister and cabinet with the confidence of the majority.

The succession of the Prime Minister is another challenge to perpetual government. In 2005, PM Ariel Sharon’s stroke raised this question. There was a Deputy Prime Minister who should technically have succeeded to office, but this was not the person who was going to lead that party and the next government. It took time for Ehud Olmert to emerge as Kadima’s leader and to assume office as Prime Minister. This crisis led to a revision of the Prime Ministerial succession. A further review of these laws would be valuable.

The final concern is that the President has the power to select the party leader who will have the first opportunity to form a government. After the 2009 election for the 18th Knesset, this power became controversial. Kadima had won 28 seats, to Likud’s 27, and had the largest faction in parliament, but the parties that make up the right bloc had clearly won a majority of the Knesset over all. President Shimon Peres designated Bibi Netanyahu to form the government, even though Likud had come in second. It has been argued that Bibi Netanyahu’s primary concern in this case is that his political rival Reuvin “Ruby” Rivlin, who is the current frontrunner for President, would be inclined to select someone else to form a government. In truth, there is great opportunity for mischief in this power of selection, whether or not Bibi’s personal self-interest is involved.

The next question arises from the proposed reform of a directly elected President of Israel: would this not create an even greater opportunity for mischief? A popularly elected President could claim democratic legitimacy in designating whomever he pleases! Israeli election results are often relatively ambiguous and could lead to many different kinds of coalitions.

When I volunteered for the State Control Committee during the 18th Knesset, Kadima held the chairmanship (the opposition always chairs this essential oversight body). I had the opportunity to learn about some of Kadima’s proposed structural reforms. One proposal would automatically select the leader of the largest faction in parliament to have the first opportunity to form a government. At the time, this proposal seemed self-serving for Kadima, but the idea does have merit. It is unlikely to have changed the outcome of the 2009 coalition building process, as Kadima could not have successfully formed a government. After some period of time the duty can pass on to another party’s leader or new elections can take place.

Whether the president is directly elected, or there is to be no President at all, such a reform would be beneficial. The Knesset should take up finding some alternative to the Presidential selection of party leaders to form governing coalitions.

An End to Redundancy

With the recent hubbub over the presidential election process, the scandal and embarrassment emanating from the office in recent years, and the sheer cost of popular elections, why not do away with it? The President’s salary, his staff, his security entourage, and travel expenses would be still further savings. The current structure of the Israeli government creates a unique opportunity enact this reform. Whether the Knesset ends the office at the time of the reform’s passage, after the next election—scheduled for 2017, or at the terminus of the next President’s regular 7-year term of office in 2021, the President to be elected this year should be Israel’s last.

What would change about the office of Prime Minister? The PM would now be both head of state and head of government, the difference is subtle. The office might be renamed the President, Presidential Minister, or could simply remain the Prime Minister. The primary mode of Israeli elections, coalition building, and governance would remain almost totally unchanged.

The Ministerial Presidential form of government would, in my opinion, be Israel’s best option. It would save money, embarrassment, and trouble while preserving the political system very much as it exists now. I believe Israeli political thinkers should include this option among other reforms to this young and evolving political system.

~Isaac Kight