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Presidential Chess

What does an Israeli president do? Not too much

A few years ago I lived in Israel to earn my MBA from Bar-Ilan University (special thanks to Masa Israel). During that time I also had the privilege of volunteering for the Knesset State Control Committee. My experience of the Israeli government has afforded me opportunity to learn about the political system. Since my return, I have editorialized about the Israeli government, policy, and business climate. Here, I would like to share my thoughts on the debate about presidential reform.

Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu recently shocked Israel and the global pro-Israel community by proposing a series of snap reforms to the Israeli presidency. This article is the first in a series that will discuss the implications of these proposals.

Bibi proposed that the current President’s term be extended by one year while the Knesset considered a direct election process or the elimination of the office all together. What caused the rush to reform the office? What is the role of the Israeli Presidency? Is the office even necessary to the Israeli system?

Bibi’s proposals suffered an immediate setback when President Shimon Peres refused to serve an additional year, even if the Knesset were to pass a temporary term extension. Finance Minister Yair Lapid, whose Yesh Atid Party (There is a Future) is a significant coalition partner, also refused to back the rash proposal. It looks very much like the presidential election will go off as usual this year.

Many have argued that Bibi is taking this action simply to prevent his chief political rival, Reuvin “Ruby” Rivlin, from coming to office. Rivlin’s presidency might also hurt Netanyahu’s chances of being reappointed Prime Minister after the next election. Shimon Peres has allegedly made the startling claim that Bibi wants to consolidate power for himself by eliminating the presidency. It is a self-evident truth that in politics any action, no matter how much it benefits the common good, arises from self-interest. In this case, Prime Minister Netanyahu’s selfish interest in preventing a political opponent from coming to power may produce a positive reform for Israel, and thus serve the greater public interest.

The Israeli Presidency

The President of Israel is a ceremonial head of state who does not engage in the day-to-day operations of the government and is elected to a 7-year term by an absolute majority of the Knesset (61 votes). The presidency has been a source of scandal and embarrassment for Israel. In 2000, President Ezer Weizman was caught up in a financial scandal that forced him to resign early. This is when the Presidency was reformed to a single, 7-year term. The next President was Moshe Katsav who was mired in charges of sexual assault and later convicted. Perhaps President Shimon Peres’ greatest achievement has been the restoration of dignity to an office that was brought low. President Peres has also been an excellent advocate for, and representative of, Israel—a role he would have fulfilled regardless of his office.

The current election already threatens future scandal. Binyamin Ben-Eliezer of Labor has been accused of being a member of prominent foreign gambling clubs. Ruby Rivlin, also of Likud, has made controversial statements, especially in opposition to the two-state solution. He would be a very poor representative of Israel in the international community. More sensible candidates like statesman Meir Sheetrit of Hatnuah (Tzipi Livni’s The Movement Party) and Nobel Laureate Dan Shechtman may not be able to earn the votes to be serious contenders. An unprecedented two women are running for the presidency: Dalia Itzik, a former Kadima MK, and Dalia Dorner, a retired Supreme Court Justice.

It is probable that direct election of the presidency would produce better results and offer candidates like Shechtman and Dorner a better showing, but at what cost? According to the National Election Commission, the 2013 Knesset election cost the state about NIS 250 million ($72.5 million). A direct Presidential election with a runoff between the two highest performing candidates could easily cost in excess of NIS 350 million ($100 million). All for an office with no real power?

While the President of Israel does not make policy, issue executive orders, or influence legislation, the head of state does have a few responsibilities. The President receives ambassadors and foreign leaders, and represents Israel at international meetings. The President has limited powers of appointment, the Governor of the Bank of Israel and the State Comptroller, for example. These responsibilities could easily pass on to the Prime Minister, Foreign Minister, and Speaker of the Knesset in the absence of a presidency. One power of which Bibi Netanyahu is keenly aware, is that of nominating the party leader who gets to form a government after elections. If that party leader fails to form a governing coalition, new elections ensue. There is no standard for the choice and at least once the nomination has gone to the party that came in second (more on this in a future post).

The main reason that parliamentary governments have a separate head of state is historical. Parliamentary government as we know it today resulted in large part from a vote of no-confidence in the British House of Commons against then-Prime Minister Lord North in 1782, a humiliating event that ended the American War of Independence. In consequence, the Prime Minister ceased to be the King’s man in parliament, and became parliament’s executive. The existence of the Prime Minister, however, continued to depend upon the King who technically appointed the office. Israel’s presidency is thus a modern iteration of the British Monarchy. What place does this institution have in the Jewish-Democratic State?

Prime Ministers rely on the real-time support of a majority of the membership of the legislature; this is a central component of Israel’s democracy. When the government fails to garner the confidence of the legislature, it dissolves and the process of forming a new government must begin. The president, by contrast, is elected only once and serves for 7 years. One argument raised internationally for retaining the separate head of state is that no nation can be left without a leader: the head of state is an insurance policy. If there were an extended time without a government, the head of state could at least appoint a temporary government on an interim basis, until the legislature establishes a new government. In Israel the President lacks even this power of interim appointment.

Having made part of the case against the presidency in Israel, I will examine the government system that would prevail if the presidency were done away with in my next post, The ministerial president.

It is an honor to join the Times of Israel blog! I want to thank the Times team for the opportunity to write here. Much of my time here I will dedicate to Israeli politics (especially structural reform); religious freedom in Israel; and also to the relationship between Israel and the United States, both in terms of our national political relationship and that between the two peoples.

About the Author
Isaac Kight earned his MBA at Bar-Ilan University in 2010. He served as a volunteer for the Knesset State Control Committee from 2009 to 2010. Isaac has a broad experience of Jewish community and religion in the US and Israel.