In Defense of the Israeli Presidency (with help from Bagehot)

As a student of political science, I have a particular weakness for what political scientists dub, “formal institutions”, such as legislatures, courts, executives, and the like.  While my colleagues may prefer to study socioeconomic development or the methods by which states interact, I much prefer to examine constitutions, parliaments, and official positions.  Thus, I take a particular interest in formal, ceremonial posts, like the Israeli presidency.

As the electoral cycle for Israel’s next president heats up, there has been a return of the perennial criticism of the presidency.  From those who wish to directly elect the Israeli president, to those who would seek its abolishment altogether, it would seem that the institution of the presidency has few allies. It isn’t hard to see how we’ve arrived at this point; the Israeli presidency has been fertile ground for scandal, the nadir of which was President Moshe Katsav’s conviction for rape.

Fortunately, President Shimon Peres has embodied the ideal Israeli president during his seven year term.  The epitome of the elder statesman, (indeed, he is oldest head of state in the world), Peres has been a global spokesman for Israel, a voice for peace and cooperation, and a dignified and unifying figure.  (Not to mention a pioneer in digital outreach; according to an interview Peres did with the New York Times, he insisted on having someone follow him with Instagram everywhere he goes) I am a great admirer of President Peres, but also of the office he occupies.  The Presidency of Israel is indeed, as critics have charged, largely ceremonial and redundant, but that is precisely why it is needed. Israel’s method for election of MKs involves a single national constituency, meaning that representation is based solely on partisan affiliation, not geographic divisions.  (Israel and the Netherlands are the only two countries to operate on such a system).  This of course, is in part responsible for the high number of political parties in Israel (which is measured by an indicator known as effective number of parties, or ENP), though other factors, such as culture, could have an impact.  Israeli politics are notoriously divided, as factions engage in horse trading and appeal to minor parties for key support.  A prime minister may hail from a party that got only a small portion (though still a plurality) of the national vote.

Of course, these divisions are part of the beauty of parliamentary democracy.  Israel’s (uncodified and unofficial) constitutional conventions are based in part off the Westminster system of Britain.  The Westminster system’s magnificence is that it evolved over time, as Parliament asserted its supremacy and the monarch delegated his powers to the legislature, thus achieving a natural and more stable democratic system (as compared to more constructed systems, such as in America).  It also is notable for its insistence on ceremony.  As the great chronicler of the British system of government, Walter Bagehot, wrote in his classic The English Constitution,

In such constitutions there are two parts (not indeed separable with microscopic accuracy, for the genius of great affairs abhors nicety of division) first, those which excite and preserve the reverence of the population— the dignified parts, if I may so call them; and next, the efficient parts — those by which it, in fact, works and rules. There are two great objects which every constitution must attain to be successful, which every old and celebrated one must have wonderfully achieved every constitution must first gain authority, and then use authority, it must first win the loyalty and confidence of mankind, and there employ that homage in the work of government. (44)

The Israeli presidency embodies the dignified aspects of the Israeli constitution, as the President, as the head of state, but not of government, is a symbol of Israel itself.  Whilst governments come and go, the President’s job is to stand, much like the speaker of the Westminsterian parliament, above the fray.  In a divided and fractious society such as Israel, the dignified presidency can win the admiration of the people.

Israeli President Shimon Peres
Israeli President Shimon Peres

Unfortunately, this idealized presidency has not often been realized, although I would argue that Shimon Peres has done an excellent job of showing Israel what it looks like.  In part, I would argue that the backgrounds of the recent presidents of Israel has hurt the office.  Moshe Katsav, for example, was a leading politician, as were many of his predecessors.  Choosing politicians like Katsav, or current frontrunner Reuven Rivlin, for the presidency is a mistake.  (While Peres is technically a politician, I am consciously separating the distinguished elder statesman from the active politician)  The presidency’s success or failure depends on one thing: picking the right guy. In my opinion, the presidency should return to the hands of voices from the sciences and the arts.  There is a reason Einstein was offered the presidency of Israel, and that Israel’s first president was a distinguished chemist.  However, the Knesset now seems to have a predilection towards electing politically inclined candidates, usually affiliated with the governing party, such as Rivlin, a Likudnik (although Nobel laureate Dan Shechtman is in the running for the presidency).  If Israel had a distinguished upper house, or a panel that nominated candidates, perhaps the presidency would be more likely to lie in the hands of distinguished and admired individuals.  However, directly electing the president would have deleterious effects.  As Bagehot wrote:

If the highest post in conspicuous life were thrown open to public competition, this low sort of ambition and envy would be fearfully increased.  Politics would offer a prize too dazzling for mankind; clever base people would strive for it, and stupid base people would envy it.  Even now a dangerous distinction is given by what is exclusively called public life. The newspapers describe daily and incessantly a certain conspicuous existence; they comment on its characters, recount its details, investigate its motives, anticipate its course. They give a precedent and a dignity to that world which they do not give to any other. The literary world, the scientific world, the philosophic world, not only are not comparable in dignity to the political world, but in comparison are hardly worlds at all. The newspaper makes no mention of them, and could not mention them. As are the papers, so are the readers (68-69)

The presidency is also more than simply a symbolic institution.  He holds large reserve powers, which are often necessary in times of turmoil and unrest, but also presents to the people a symbol of calm, a reminder that divided government and powerful state are not one.  Bagehot saw this perfectly, and lamented that the Americans had made the mistake of giving their president actual power. Furthermore, Although the presidency can seem like a legal fiction, I would argue it is a far better to maintain this  legal fiction than shift all the powers of state to a prime minister who may enjoy only small amounts of support.   In politics, image matters far more than fact, and even though the prime minister governs in reality, the image of separation, unity, and stability the presidency, when occupied by the right individual projects, is essential to upholding the legitimacy of the state. Even symbolic separation of powers serves to condition the institutions of democracy in the populace and in politicians. It is true that the all the role of the head of state in the  Westminster system may seem odd or obsolete.  It can seem like, and indeed may very well be, frivolous pageantry.  Bagehot himself acknowledged this, writing,

It is very easy to imagine a world in which this change would not bea great evil. In a country where people did not care for the outwardshow of life, where the genius of the people was untheatrical, and they exclusively regarded the substance of things, this matter would be trifling. Whether Lord and Lady Derby received the foreign ministers, or Lord and Lady Palmerston, would be a matter of indlifference; whether they gave the nicest parties would be important only to the persons at those parties. A nation of unimpressible philosophers would not care at all how the externals of life were managed. Who is the showman is not material unless you care about the show.But of all nations in the world the English are perhaps the least a nation of pure philosophers. It would be a very serious matter to us to change every four or five years the visible head of our world. We are not now remarkable for the highest sort of ambition; but we are remarkable for having a great deal of the lower sort of ambition and envy. (68)

I dare say that despite our propensity for intellectual posturing, the Jews are not a nation of pure philosophers.  The presidency matters because of human nature itself; we need the grand legal fiction of the unifying figure to hold together our fractious parliaments. And after all, what is more Jewish than the legal fiction?

About the Author
Elijah Z. Granet is a student in the dual degree program at Columbia University and the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, studying political science and Jewish History. He is also a recipient of the 2013-2014 Anne and Benjamin Goor Prize in Jewish Studies.
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