The Israeli Presidency: Unnecessary Institution or Vital Symbol?
As the 2014 presidential election draws near, once again there have been calls to do away with the institution of the presidency. Is the President of Israel an unnecessary position or a vital symbol? IDI researcher Dr. Dana Blander analyzes the two sides of this question.
Note: This article is based on the chapter "The President: Does the Presidency Fulfill its Objectives?" in I. Galnoor and D. Blander (eds.), The Political System of Israel, Vol.1 (Tel Aviv: Am Oved, 2013), pp. 131–53 [Hebrew]
As the presidential election draws near in Israel, we are once again hearing calls to abolish the presidency. The supporters of this move believe that the president’s powers could be reassigned to other institutions, thereby eliminating an unnecessary public expense. Those who favor retaining the presidency emphasize the symbolic and unifying role of the president. In order to determine whether the existence of this institution is justified, we must examine how the status of the presidency developed over the years, explore the formal and symbolic roles of the president, and consider the president's standing in the political and public spheres.
The Beginnings of the Presidency
If we trace the evolution of the presidency back to the earliest days of the State of Israel, we find clues about the vagueness of the symbolic role that the president fulfills as well as the identity that developed between the person who served as president and the institution of the presidency itself. Israel's first president, Chaim Weizmann, became president of Israel even before the presidency was enshrined in law. According to Ben-Gurion, Weizmann's election as president was a matter of “historical justice more than a constitutional change or political statement.” The nature of the position, however, was not clear even to the newly elected president himself. This is how Weizmann described the position of president in a letter to Ben-Gurion that was never sent:
"First, allow me to remind you that I did not seek to serve in the position that I currently hold. This post was offered to me by you and the members of your Government.… I did not accept it with particular enthusiasm. It is not that I do not value the great honor that this position confers upon its holder, but the president’s duties and responsibilities have not been made clear to me.… For example, I was told that the president is a symbol. To date, I have been unable to understand this vague statement, as well as who determines the symbolic importance of the President of the State."
In an interview with the New York Post later on in his term (September 6, 1951), Weizmann remarked that the only place that the Government allowed him to stick his nose was in his handkerchief. In a letter of resignation dated July 30, 1948 (which he subsequently retracted), he wrote:
"I have decided to sever my ties with the position that has been forced upon me. I am not prepared to use my name to provide cover for everything currently taking place in the Land of Israel and cannot make peace with everything that the government is doing without being able to influence anything or prevent it.… I really and truly do not want to cause any problems or difficulties for the newborn state, which, in any case, is mired in serious and difficult problems, but I cannot reconcile myself to being only a passive partner to this enterprise, which is being conducted along lines that I cannot tolerate."
The vague nature of the president’s symbolic role and the lack of a political definition of the position have continued to plague the office of the president from the time of Israel's first incumbent, Chaim Weizmann, until the present day. Over the years, however, the president’s official duties have been defined by legislation.
The President’s Roles and Powers
Israel's Basic Law: President of the State stipulates that “a president shall stand at the head of the State.” The president is elected for a seven-year term by an absolute majority of the Knesset (61 members) in a secret ballot that is conducted in a special session.For a detailed description of the method of electing the president of Israel, see Kenig, 2007. The president has full immunity in the performance of his or her duties for his entire life (Article 13, Basic Law: The President) and is immune from criminal prosecution for as long as he serves as a president (Article 14, Basic Law: The President). The president’s term can be ended if he or she resigns or if the Knesset decides to remove the president from office due to unbecoming conduct or poor health.
The president has a variety of roles, most of which are symbolic in nature. However, the president performs the following executive functions:
- The president’s signature is required on every law, except for laws related to the power of the president. The President’s signature appears alongside the signature of the prime minister or another minister, except for on documents related to the formation of the government or the dissolution of the Knesset. The president also signs international treaties and conventions that have been ratified by the Knesset.
- Regarding the executive branch, the Basic Law: The Government details the formal procedure in which the President assigns the task of forming a Government to a member of the Knesset after the Knesset elections or after the resignation or death of the prime minister. However, the president retains the discretion as to whether to approve the prime minister’s request to dissolve the Knesset.
- As head of state, the president accepts the credentials of foreign diplomats in Israel and confirms the credentials of Israeli diplomats serving abroad.
- Regarding the judicial branch, the president signs the appointment of judges, dayanim (Jewish religious court judges), and qadis (Muslim religious court judges). He holds exclusive power to pardon criminals or reduce their sentences.The president’s authority to grant clemency has frequently aroused controversy. The most serious case was the “Bus 300 Affair” of 1984, in which President Chaim Herzog pardoned the people implicated as involved in the incident even before they had been convicted.
- In order to fulfill his or her role, the president receives reports of government sessions both in writing (e.g., summaries of government decisions) and orally (e.g., meetings with the prime minister or updates by the government secretary). The president may request information on a specific subject, including classified information.
As mentioned above, beyond these statutory duties, Basic Law: The President also stipulates that “a president shall stand at the head of the State.” But what does this mean? Is the president merely a symbol or, perhaps, another player in the political arena?
A Figurehead or Political Player?
Although the law does not state this explicitly, the role of the president of Israel—like that of other ceremonial heads of state in parliamentary democracies—is mainly symbolic. As President Peres said in his inaugural address to the Knesset:
"The president is not a governor, not a judge, not a lawmaker. But he is permitted to dream, to set values, to act with honesty and with compassion, with courage and with kindness. There is nothing that prohibits the president from performing good deeds. He is allowed, and even obligated, to serve his people; to nurture love of the people, of the state, of all creatures; to draw in those who are far away, to look into the distance, to help the weak, to comfort the bereaved, to bring people together, to increase equality, to bridge differences, and to support spiritual and scientific creativity."
While the law does not specify what it means by “a president shall stand at the head of the State,” there is consensus that the presidency transcends political and partisan rivalries and internal social divisions. The president's exalted and independent position enables the president to represent shared values and positions that are not in dispute. This status gives the presidency a great deal of importance, especially in times of crisis.
It is impossible, however, to ignore the unavoidable political aspect of the presidency. One reason for this is the fact that most presidents to date have been identified with a political party or group of parties (Kenig, 2014). Another is that since the president is elected by the Knesset, the candidates generally hail from the ranks of the ruling party or the main opposition. Nonetheless, it has become customary that once a president is elected, he or she dons the mantle of nonpartisanship and refrains from involvement in politically charged issues.
Nevertheless, there have been several memorable episodes in Israel’s political history when presidents did take a stand on controversial issues. After the Yom Kippur War, President Ephraim Katzir triggered a public outcry when he said, “We are all guilty.” President Yitzhak Navon threatened to resign unless a state commission of inquiry was established to investigate the massacres at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Lebanon. President Chaim Herzog referred to the “hostile media,” subscribed to the idea of changing the system of government, and criticized the High Court of Justice's decision to allow Meir Kahane’s list to run in the 1984 Knesset elections. Ezer Weizman made many statements that drew heavy criticism: his call for a “timeout” in the negotiations with the Palestinians after the wave of terror in 1995; his invitation of Chairman Yasser Arafat to his home in Caesarea after Benjamin Netanyahu was elected prime minister in 1996; his recommendation that the Barak government conduct negotiations with Syria soon after it took office in 1999; his support for the establishment of a National Unity Government; and his disparaging remarks about women. In addition to the criminal stain at the end of his term, Moshe Katsav also undertook controversial initiatives: he commuted Margalit Har-Shefi's sentence for her involvement in the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin against the recommendation of the parole board of the Prisons Service; he issued a declaration in favor of an end to hostilities and in support of a hudna [truce], and he expressed his willingness to visit the Palestinian Parliament in Ramallah. Although Israel's ninth president, Shimon Peres, is affiliated with a political party, he has generally refrained from taking a clear stand on controversial subjects during this term. However, statements that he has made on issues of national concern such as the social protest, a possible attack on Iranian nuclear installations, and negotiations with the Palestinians have often been criticized as inappropriate interference in political affairs. Over the years, there have been unsuccessful legislative attempts to limit the president’s involvement in issues on which there is no national consensus. The sponsors of these bills contend that a president cannot fulfill the traditional role of serving as a unifying symbol if he or she takes a stand on political issues. It is clear to everyone, however, that legislation is not the answer to this problem.
Despite the unifying and symbolic role of the president, it is difficult to expect the president to commit to silence on critical national issues. On the other hand, the president must take into account the fact taking a stand on controversial topics could undermine public confidence in the president. This could harm the prestigious role of the presidency as the only political institution with which every citizen of Israel can identify. Because the nature of the presidency is shaped primarily by the person who is in office, there is no point in trying to legislate the boundaries of the president’s statements; instead, we should rely on the president to act judiciously and in a nonpartisan manner in order to maintain the prestige of the institution of the presidency.
Summary: On the Need for a President Nonetheless
Unlike other government institutions, the presidency must justify its very existence, since some people question the need for the presidency. Those who call for its abolition claim that the presidency is an impractical, powerless, and wasteful institution. They believe that the president’s powers are illusory because the president does not come to decisions independently but instead acts in accordance with the recommendations of others. The president endorses the credentials of ambassadors at the recommendation of the foreign minister, appoints judges pursuant to the recommendations of the Judicial Appointments Committee, grants clemency based on recommendations by the justice minister, and countersigns legislation that has already been signed by the relevant minister. The people who argue that the presidency should be abolished believe that the monetary cost of the institution does not justify the symbolic utility of the institution; if we need someone to fulfill symbolic roles, this could be done by the Knesset speaker, prime minister, or some other minister without additional expense to the public purse. Opponents of the institution of the presidency also believe that the president—who is usually a politician and is elected by the balance of forces in the Knesset—cannot, in fact, fulfill the unifying symbolic role of the president.
On the other hand, we cannot ignore the fact that polls consistently find that the president has consistently enjoyed the highest level of public confidence as compared to other Israeli government institutions—except for the few years when faith in this institution hit an all-time low because of the incumbent’s involvement in criminal activity (Heller, 2014). It appears that the image of the president as someone who bridges the gulfs and transcends political arguments strengthens public confidence in this institution. This means that the presidency still has great importance, as it represents the state and allows citizens to identify with it more than any other political institution. This is even more significant because Israeli society is fragmented—a condition that is reflected in the composition of the Knesset. The presidency serves as a bridge; consequently, the president’s ceremonial and symbolic roles should actually be expanded. We must be careful, however, not to grant the president any executive powers beyond the few he already has, since additional powers could harm the president’s unifying role and even undermine the essence of the presidency.
Because of its symbolic nature, the presidency is shaped to a great extent by the person who holds the office—perhaps even more than the people who head other government institutions impact their positions. The stability of the presidency is of even greater importance in light of the extreme fluctuations in Israel's political system since the 1980s and the changes in Israel's system of government as a result of the institution—and subsequent repeal—of direct elections for prime minister. While these shifts altered the map of Israel's political parties, the status of the Knesset, and the government’s ability to lead the country, and even left their mark on the Supreme Court, the presidency was less affected, possibly because of its importance in times of political crisis. The presidency is also extremely important because of the delicate fabric of Israeli society. The secret of the strength of the presidency is its ability to be the “most Israeli” for every social group: more distant than other institutions but, at the same time, connected to their work. Israeli presidents may not be party to the arguments, but they are not disconnected from reality, and have the power to express their position in a manner appropriate for a person of their stature.
In order for the president to fulfill the symbolic role of president in the best possible way, he or she must be as far removed as possible from social and political controversies. Therefore, a member of the Knesset should not be elected president directly from representing a party in the Knesset and should not return to the political arena immediately after serving as president. In order to facilitate this, it is recommended that a short “cooling-off” period be legislated for MKs before they can run for president, which will ensure that an acting member of Knesset will not put forward his or her candidacy. There is also a need for a longer “cooling-off” period to be legislated for after a president leaves office, which will guarantee a break before he or she assumes a political position. This would increase the chances of having an expanded pool of candidates, both in terms of their personal background and in terms of the life experience that they bring to the position.
- Heller, Ella. 2014. Israeli Public Opinion on the President and the Presidential Elections. Israel Democracy Institute website.
- Kenig, Ofer. 2014. At the Starting Line: The Israeli Presidential Race Begins. Israel Democracy Institute website.
- Kenig, Ofer 2007. How Should the President be Chosen? Israel Democracy Institute website [Hebrew].