As a member of the advisory team of Israel’s ninth president, Shimon Peres, I had a close up look at how necessary the institution of the presidency is to the State of Israel. Indeed, a convincing answer to the frequently asked question of why Israel needs the institution of the presidency was provided during outgoing President Reuven Rivlin’s term. The importance of the presidency stems from the fact that we have no constitution, that our political system encourages a short-term political tactics over long-term strategic statesmanship, and both of the above are especially critical when power is held by a man like Netanyahu, whose entire focus was on his political and legal survival.
In this situation, the president’s main role is to act as a “compass” guided by his legal authority and moral weight of the office. He must balance the harmful trends in the political system and ensure that we keep pointed toward the mission of the State of Israel, as stated in the Declaration of Independence.
The president’s role as a “compass” is especially important in two components of the state’s vision — the commitment to Diaspora Jews and the commitment to minorities among the state’s citizens. Our politicians are not politically rewarded for considering the interests and values of the Jews who do not live here, because they do not vote in Israel’s elections. Moreover, the political weight of Orthodox religious parties forces the other parties to prioritize the sectarian interest Orthodox denominations at the expense of the other branches of Judaism whose majority are overseas and thus bring about their actual exclusion.
In the absence of a constitution our politicians are not obliged to preserve the rights of minorities, as reflected by the enactment of the discriminatory nation-state law, which actually sent a message to Arabs, Druze, and others, that they are second-class citizens, not only de facto, but also de jure.
President Rivlin came from a political background opposite to that of Peres and closer to that of Netanyahu, but he understood the responsibility placed on his shoulders. I disagree with Rivlin’s political views, because there is no way to fulfill his liberal aspirations without dividing the country. Without a two-state solution, we will have to decide at the end of the day whether to give up being the homeland of the Jewish people or to give up our democracy.
I did greatly appreciate, however, Rivlin’s courage to persevere in his liberal conceptions even when the camp from which he grew up abandoned revisionist liberalism. The party in which he operated for years that was also the ruling party during his tenure became before his eyes a party of cult of personality and populism. His beloved soccer team Beitar Jerusalem became a symbol of racism and nationalism.
However, Rivlin, who had a long career in Israel’s parliament and eventually became Speaker of the Knesset, understood as a democrat and liberal in his soul that the system must be balanced. Rivlin defended the rights of the Arab minority as Speaker of the Knesset and gained great popularity among Arab legislators. He learned the responsibility of being president of the Jewish people, including those in the Diaspora, in his early days at the President’s Residence.
Although he did not know world leaders as his predecessor Peres did, he gained great popularity outside Israel’s borders, due to his role in balancing the government. His reputation as a liberal greatly helped him in the foreign arena, especially as the Israeli government moved away from liberal values and aligned itself with authoritarian populists around the world such as Trump in the US, Urban in Hungary, Bolsonaro in Brazil, and more.
Even in the inner arena, Rivlin knew how to maintain a statesmanlike attitude. Although Netanyahu opposed Rivlin’s election to the presidency, and relations between them were unsettled, Rivlin maintained the dignity and authority of his office, repeatedly over the past two years in awarding the mandate to form the government as expected of a president who is above politics and acts in the public interest. Rivlin knew how to surround himself with excellent professional advisers who helped him to behave wisely during one of the most difficult times known to the Israeli political system.
From personal acquaintance with incoming President Yitzhak (“Bougie”) Herzog, I feel certain that he too will be able to maintain the institution of the presidency as his two predecessors did. As chairman of the Jewish Agency, he is well aware of his role as a leader of the entire Jewish people and the need for the State of Israel to stop treating Diaspora Jews instrumentally and as second-class Jews. Herzog understands that he must treat all Jews living in or outside Israel as our brothers and sisters and respect their opinions, beliefs and needs.
As someone who has worked for years in the parliamentary field and as one of the best welfare ministers we have had, Herzog understands the need to balance politics also in the context of minority rights. Herzog is also a diplomat from birth, and will know how to conduct himself in the international arena as expected of a president.
As a lawyer by profession, President Herzog fully understands Israel’s parliamentary system and its limitations, and I have no doubt that he will know how to conduct himself properly within the structure of the three branches of democracy — the government, the Knesset and the courts. The roles of the presidency in these contexts are more vital than ever.
Outgoing President Reuven (Ruby) Rivlin should be congratulated on an impressive presidency and I also offer my personal congratulations to incoming President Yitzhak (Boogi) Herzog. It is to be hoped that the “government of change” will make its contribution to correcting the ills of Israeli politics and will itself maintain the Zionist vision in positive contrast to the outgoing government.