Changing of the Guard: Thoughts About Israel’s New President

Through an unusual combination of circumstances, Israelis and their supporters abroad have found themselves thinking recently about an institution that usually receives little attention.   With Shimon Peres’s seven-year term as President of the State set to expire in July, the Knesset last week, following the procedures set out in Basic Law: President (which, together with ten other basic laws, fill the gap created by the country’s lack of a constitution), elected former Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin to succeed him.  Rivlin was elected on the second ballot; he had failed to gain an absolute majority on the first because the remaining votes had been split among five other candidates.  His election had been expected, however, and there was no real suspense as to the outcome.

As the members of the Knesset were preparing to elect his successor, President Peres, along with Mahmoud Abbas, the President of the Palestinian Authority, was in Rome praying with Pope Francis.  The pope, during his recent trip to Israel, had unexpectedly extended invitations to the two presidents to attend a prayer meeting with him at the Vatican.   Although Peres’s term is almost over — and in any event he had no control over Israel’s negotiating position on the various issues that have prevented agreement between Israel and the PA — the pope presumably believed there was some symbolic value in the two presidents praying together.  For Peres, the so-called prayer summit provided one last opportunity to use the symbolic value of his office before his seven-year term ends next month.   I doubt that Israel’s government was thrilled, but while technically they had the right to prevent him from accepting the pope’s invitation, realistically they had little choice but to approve the trip. (Under the applicable basic law, the President is not permitted to leave the country without the consent of the government.)

Americans often have trouble understanding the significance of the Israeli President because our governmental system has no comparable position.  Our President is head of state, but he’s also the country’s political leader.  Like many other democratic countries, however – India, Italy, Germany and Turkey, to name just a few — Israel is a parliamentary republic, which is essentially a constitutional monarchy without the monarch.  In such a system, the President (whose office is “mostly ceremonial”, to use the customary phrase), is the head of state, a position separate from that of the political head of government (usually called the Prime Minister), whose power is derived from his ability to retain majority support in parliament.

The parliamentary system developed in Great Britain, where the current constitutional monarchy evolved organically over the course of centuries. For a variety of historical reasons, the British parliamentary system became the model for many other countries as they democratized in the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.   Many of the countries that had no monarch or chose not to retain their monarch became parliamentary republics.   As such, they retained the notion of a nominal head of state with little or no real power; they merely created a procedure to choose the holder of that office that did not depend on heredity.

Israel was one of the countries that chose that route.  In part that choice may have resulted from the direct influence of Britain, which had ruled Palestine under the League of Nations mandate from the end of World War I until Israel became independent in 1948. At the time of Israel’s independence, moreover, almost every democratic European country had some variant of a parliamentary system. (Even France was then using a standard parliamentary system; its current hybrid system was not adopted until the creation of the Fifth Republic in1958.)   The ceremonial presidency also suited the political needs of David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s founding Prime Minister, because it enabled him to provide a prestigious but powerless post for Chaim Weitzman, who otherwise might have become a serious rival for power.

In any parliamentary system, whether republic or monarchy, the head of state holds an office that brings with it, by design, great prestige but little power. Such a head of state can be a focal point of ceremonial patriotism and a unifying force for a diverse population.  He can help to strengthen ties with other nations and can serve as a failsafe to prevent government overreaching.  He can also relieve the democratic head of government of some ceremonial duties, which can sometimes interfere with the hard work of governing.

How much influence a ceremonial head of state can wield varies widely depending on a number of factors, including the specific provisions of the laws that govern his office, his relationship with the head of government and his ability to cultivate a neutral, non-partisan image, at least in public.  Most important, however, are the reputation and character that the individual head of state brings to the office and the manner in which he conducts himself while he holds it.  A constitutional monarch often has the benefit a mystique that can mask mediocrity.  An elected head of state like Israel’s President lacks such a mystique and thus is more dependent on his own ability and character.

I recently saw a Youtube clip that included some man-on-the-street interviews conducted in Britain during the celebration of Queen Elizabeth II’s diamond jubilee.  One middle-aged gentleman, after expressing admiration for the Queen, expressed puzzlement that some other countries preferred having a “superannuated politician” as head of state.  It was not the most tactful way of phrasing the description, but it was reasonably accurate.  In most parliamentary republics, the President is often a politician past his prime, more politely described as an “elder statesman.”

One way to avoid the superannuated politician problem would be to select a President whose respect and prestige derive from a field of endeavor other than politics.  That was presumably the thinking behind Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s reported attempt to prevent Rivlin’s election as President by recruiting writer and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Eli Wiesel to succeed Peres.  (Netanyahu and Rivlin have reportedly had personal differences, though after Rivlin’s election both signaled that they would have no problem working together.)  It was undoubtedly the thinking behind David Ben-Gurion’s unsuccessful effort to recruit Albert Einstein after the death of Israel’s first president, Chain Weitzman, in 1952.  The failure of both efforts points to one obvious problem with seeking a non-politician head of state – most non-politicians of sufficient stature would be unlikely to find the life of a ceremonial head of state terribly appealing.

A prominent non-politician, moreover, even if persuaded to take that office, might not be very good at it.  The only Israeli President who came entirely from outside the world of politics was Ephraim Katzir, Israel’s fourth President.  He was a highly respected scientist but an unimpressive head of state.

Most of the time, parliamentary republics choose as head of state, someone who can play the role of an elder statesman.   Even among long-serving politicians, some can play that role better than others, and   Shimon Peres played it better than anyone else in Israel’s history.  He came to the presidency at a time when the prestige of that office had been tainted by two successive presidents who had been forced by scandal to resign before the natural conclusion of their terms. Peres’s overarching challenge was to restore the dignity and prestige of the office, and in this he succeeded.

Peres had some advantages, of course.  To be an elder statesman, it helps to be elderly, and Peres, who was 83 when elected and is 90 as is term is ending, is the oldest President in Israel’s history.   It also helps to be well known and respected abroad since making and hosting state visits are among the President’s most important functions. Given his years of prior service as Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, Peres was well known and well respected throughout the world. And, of course, Peres’ receipt of the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize, which he shared with Yaris Arafat and the late Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin, further enhanced his reputation, particularly in Europe.

Israel’s President, like any ceremonial head of state, is expected to be politically neutral.  This can be a difficult transition for any former politician, much less one who, like Peres, was a member of the Knesset for 48 years and served in 12 governments, including two stints as prime minster.  The challenge of political neutrality that faced Peres when he became President in 2007 was two-fold: he had to learn how to act in a non-partisan manner, and he had to persuade the public to view him as above the political fray that had been at the center of his life for more than half a century.

It would seem to be a daunting challenge, yet Peres succeeded.  He couldn’t change or repudiate his past, but he understood the need for neutrality in the present.  By happenstance or — depending on your religious perspective — hashgacha pratit (divine prominence), Peres, early in his presidency, had the opportunity to demonstrate his political neutrality.  Israel’s 2009 general election produced an unprecedented situation.  The Kadima Party, headed by Tzippi Livni, became the largest party in the Knesset, yet it was clear that a majority of the Knesset members preferred Likud’s Benjamin Netanyahu, whose Likud Party had come in one Knesset seat behind Kadima, to become prime minister.  For the first time in Israel’s history, a President actually had a choice as to who should be given the first opportunity to form a government.  Peres could easily have justified choosing Livni since in every preceding Knesset election, the leader of the party with the largest number of Knesset seats became Prime Minister.  There was no doubt that Peres’s political views were closer to Livni’s than to Netanyahu’s, but he judged that Netanyahu would have a better chance of forming a government, and he acted accordingly.

During the course of his seven-year term of office, Shimon Peres has managed, despite his partisan background, to serve as a unifying figure for Israelis across the political spectrum.  In part that may be because he is the last of Israel’s founding generation still active in public life.  Probably a more important factor is that he has made effective use of both the stature of his office and his own international reputation for the benefit of his country, promoting Israel’s commercial interests abroad and helping to counter the negative images of Israel that have become so pervasive in the world media.  He has also devoted time to strengthening Israel’s relationship with Diaspora Jewry.

Reuven Rivlin is not Shimon Peres, and we cannot expect him to be.  He does not have anything approaching Peres’s global stature and is unlikely to be as valuable an asset for Israel on the international stage.  He did, however, during his tenure as Knesset speaker, demonstrate his ability to act in a non-partisan manner.  It seems likely that he will devote less time than Peres did to representing Israel abroad and more time to encouraging unity within Israel, a vital but too often overlooked need.

Rivlin’s own political views are well-known, as were Peres’s.  While Peres had been one of the architects of the “peace process” with the Palestinians, Rivlin has long been an opponent of it.  In the wake of Rivlin’s election, much of the foreign media focused on that difference, but it’s unlikely to matter.  Rivlin has acknowledged the obligation of political neutrality, and his tenure as Knesset speaker demonstrated that he is capable of distinguishing between private opinion and public duty.   It is unlikely that there will be meaningful progress in the peace process over the next seven years, but not because of anything Rivlin says or does.

Shimon Peres has served as Israel’s President with devotion and honor.  He has restored the prestige of an office that had been tainted by his two most recent predecessors. Reuven Rivlin, when he formally takes office next month as Israel’s tenth president, may find it difficult to live up to his predecessor’s example – but that is probably an unreasonable expectation.  He cannot make himself into Peres, but he can use his own talents and abilities, together with the resources available to him as head of state, for the benefit of the State of Israel and its people.  All who support the State of Israel, wherever they fall on the political spectrum, should wish him well.


About the Author
Douglas Aronin is a retired attorney living in Forest Hills, Queens, who is continuing his lifelong involvement in the Jewish community. His writings have appeared in a wide range of print and online forums.