Whither a Presidency?

December 1, 2006
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Asher Maoz

The birth of the institution of the presidency in Israel happened in error — some might say even deceptively— and is connected with two prominent leaders of the 20th century Zionist movement: Chaim Weizmann and David Ben Gurion. Weizmann, who was president of the World Zionist Organization, lost the birthright to Ben Gurion because of Weizmann’s moderate political attitude. Two days after the establishment of the state, Weizmann — on a political mission in Washington— was surprised by a telegram from Ben Gurion: “we will see you as head of the state that will be established in peace.” This was viewed by some as a noble move; the Prime Minister expressing his esteem to the elder statesman. Others saw a Machiavellian exercise in which Ben Gurion tried to get rid of a political opponent who still enjoyed the respect of many. Weizmann was under no illusion that he was being offered the equivalent status of President of the United States but he also did not think that Ben Gurion was offering a symbolic position, like President of France. He hoped for a status equivalent to the status of the President of Italy that would include presiding over the sessions of the government with the ministers having the right to consult with him. Ben Gurion quickly clarified that this was not his intention. Indeed, when Weizmann came to one of the government’s meetings and sat down at the head of the table, Ben Gurion did not stop him, but made it clear that this was a one-time event and not to be repeated. As to the ministers’ right to consult with the president, Ben Gurion noted that everyone was entitled to consult with whomever he wished, “even with the president of the country.”

Following Weizmann’s death, Yitzhak Ben Zvi became the second president of Israel, symbolizing a change from an aristocratic image of the presidency to a popular image. Ben Zvi shaped the presidency as an institution that united all factions of the nation and was above political controversy. Further changes occurred during the terms of other presidents. For example, Zalman Shazar, a scholar and historian, opened the president’s residence to intellectuals from around the world and established the President’s Forum to discuss the problems of contemporary Jewish people.

The current president, Moshe Katzav, came to the presidency through political activity, and was, possibly, planning on returning to political life — perhaps seeing the position as a springboard for the fight for head of the Likud party. He is the first president to be elected from within immigrants who came to Israel after the establishment of the state.

In Israel, while the president stands at the head of the state, he does not serve as head of the executive. His powers are mostly ceremonial, and include: opening the Knesset plenary session, signing laws and signing treaties with foreign countries approved by the Knesset, appointing judges and other senior office holders, accrediting the diplomatic representatives of the state of Israel, and accepting the accreditation of foreign diplomats. The president has three powers with real authority: The first is the authority to assign the task of forming a government on a Knesset member. The second is to approve the prime minister’s initiative to disperse the Knesset if a majority of the Knesset opposes the government. The third power is to pardon criminals and commute their sentences. Yet even these powers are rather limited. Thus his decision to pardon criminals is subject to the Minister of Justice approval.

Some claim that the president’s limited authority is the very source of his strength. “His elevated and separate position,” explained former Supreme Court President Moshe Landau, “makes him eligible to represent values of social ethics that are not entrenched in political controversy but are at times necessary to remind the public.” Although most presidents came from the world of politics, they usually maintained a neutral political position in their work (with a few exceptions). The claim has been raised that the president serves as a uniting sovereign figure. Others claim that in a society as polarized as Israel there is no room for such a task.

An essential shift in Israeli society, from a society of immigrants to a society with a native-born majority, might suggest the state no longer needs a uniting father figure. As well, Israel is no longer the collective society that placed the benefit of the public good over personal interest, having adopted privatization and individualization. The policy of unification, of eliminating differences within society, has been replaced by emphasizing differences and multiculturalism. In this society, so the claim goes, there is no place for a uniting cohesive figure. These factors raised awareness that there is no point to the existence of the institution of the powerless presidency.

Suggestions to put an end to the office of the president in its present form range from the adoption of a presidential regime headed by a president with substantial powers to totally revoke the institution. This inclination is strengthened by the scandals that have rocked and weakened the presidency: the financial entanglement of President Ezer Weizmann, which led to a police investigation and his resignation; and the sexual harassment accusations as well as accusations of mishandling pardons and wiretapping brought against President Katsav. It should be noted that the president enjoys immunity as long as he serves in office. Yet the Attorney General expressed the view, shared by many that he should step down from his office and not wait to be indicted. Suggestions to impeach the president are also under way though it is most unlikely for the Knesset to obtain the required majority. All this said, it is highly doubtful that the end of the institution of the presidency in Israel has arrived. As this article goes to press heated campaigns are taking place for Katsav’s heir.

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Asher Maoz is a professor of law at Tel Aviv University and Editor-in Chief of Law, Society and Culture. Translated by Felice Kahn Zisken.

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