Good Suggestion, Wrong Suggester
There are long-standing kinks in Israel’s governmental power structure. For example, a small Knesset majority may declare that the law it’s enacting — a Basic Law — can’t be reversed except by a larger majority than enacted it in the first place. That’s what’s known in Hebrew as jumping higher than your own belly button.
But that particular overreach isn’t a big focus of debate today. And it’s hard to pretend that today’s major debate is all about structure. It’s hard to pretend that if we had a right-wing court and a left-wing legislature, the same people as today would be out in the streets asserting the court’s right to decide every issue and veto any law at will. The dispute is inspired more by the current office-holders than by the offices.
In recent days, some leading literary figures have protested the idea that the National Library should be run by the government. How many people who applaud that particular protest even know exactly what the current command structure of the National Library is?
I wonder if the concerned Americans who join our debates from afar will come to the realization that their own national library, the Library of Congress, shouldn’t necessarily be run by someone approved by Congress.
On the question of courts versus legislature, President Herzog stepped forward with a useful suggestion for compromise, but perhaps even more useful than the specific suggestion was his acknowledgment that there can be wiggle room in the precise composition of the judicial selection committee, and in the size of the majority for overturning a parliamentary or judicial decision, without tumbling from the green pastures of democracy into the abyss of despotic rule.
That said, I do have a point to state about governmental structure, irrespective of whose views I agree or disagree with: President Herzog was stepping out of bounds.
There’s a cycle in Israel that’s repeated itself too long. It goes like this. A veteran politician is nominated for the presidency. The opposing camp says that the country needs a truer consensus figure instead. The candidate’s supporters say he (so far, it’s always he) is indeed a consensus figure because the bright glow of his reputation has by now caused his history of partisanship to fade into irrelevance. So the man becomes president, and it turns out he can’t resist intervening in politics. Rivlin, Peres, Weizman, Navon… they couldn’t cover up their political stripes.
Navon even returned briefly to the legislature after his presidency, and that shouldn’t be allowed. The citizens should be able to honor the president wholeheartedly as a symbol of the state without worrying that the aura of honorability will be recycled into political capital for one party or another later on.
Regarding presidential duties, our government website says: “The president’s actions are geared toward strengthening mutual commitment among the citizens of Israel, identification with the state and its official emblems, social cohesion, national pride, and ties between Israel and the Diaspora; to nurturing moral values, equality and peace throughout society, improving ties between the Jewish majority and the minority populations in Israel, and encouraging Israeli art and culture.”
By jumping into the middle of a ferocious political argument to take a stance of his own, the President isn’t strengthening mutual commitment among the citizens of Israel, social cohesion, or peace throughout society. If the ideas he presents are good, as I believe they are, then the public should be able to appreciate them even if they come from a professor or a think tank or a TV commentator rather than from the head of state. Today’s president offers wisdom, but the next president may throw his weight of office behind some less respectable notion. And in any case, the prestige of the office is eroded when the president finds that his counsel alienates part of the public, draws him into disputation, or winds up ignored.
But maybe the president could be put in charge of the National Library.