The Presidency: The “Additional Soul” of Israeli Democracy

A Series of Articles by Israel's Presidential Candidates

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Former Speaker of the Knesset MK Reuven (Ruby) Rivlin shares his views on the importance of the institution of the Israeli presidency,as part of an exclusive IDI series of articles by the presidential candidates of 2014.

“What is mine is mine and what is yours is yours—that is the attribute of Sodom.” Sodom was not destroyed because of the atrocities that were committed in that city or the political and social chaos that proliferated there. The destruction of Sodom, so the commentators say, occurred because it applied the strict law of “what is mine is mine and what is yours is yours.” Sodom became the symbol of social ruin and degeneracy, not because there was no justice there, but because there was only justice. Leniency, dialogue, compromise, compassion, and benevolence—none of these were found there; nor were any of the many other qualities that are a precondition for a society worthy of the name.

Democracy is a system that has both a body and a soul, and one cannot exist without the other. If the Knesset is the scene of debate, decision, and frequently also of the minority’s surrender to the majority—the President’s Residence is a place for dialogue, partnership, and compromise. In this sense, the presidency constitutes the “additional soul” of the democratic system. The President’s Residence is a home where there is no preference for the majority over the minority or for the strong over the weak; it is a house whose door is open to all and whose occupant is attentive to the basic issues that affect Israeli society.

In the absence of a constitution that would give explicit expression to Israel’s ethical foundations, set clear boundaries between the several branches of government, and would buttress the defenses that protect the minority from the majority and the majority from the minority—the presidency takes on additional importance. The President’s Residence is where all social currents and ethnic communities receive equal recognition. The method by which the president is elected reflects the aspiration to realize this democratic ideal by trying to ensure that the incumbent enjoys a broad consensus that transcends all the rival camps.

On the constitutional level, the president is more a symbol than a center of authority. The constitutional powers granted him, too, are largely symbolic. This is the case, for example, with the president's right to grant clemency: here the president must be guided by the position of the legal system and respect its recommendation, so that his signature is only a formality. The same applies to the president’s ostensible power to hand over the keys for the formation of a new Government. I say “ostensible,” because this authority is only apparent and rarely has any practical meaning. The history of Israeli politics shows that it is the results at the polls that determine who forms the Government. Furthermore, it is the Knesset that is charged with voting confidence or no-confidence in the Government.

Only when the president observes strict political neutrality and adheres to the ideal of nonpartisanship for which he was elected can his statements and actions have influence. It is by virtue of the elected Government’s duty—and not only its right—to govern that the President is obligated to back all of the Government's social and political decisions, even when he personally disagrees with them.

One should not conclude from the dearth of presidential powers that, in the words of Israel’s first president, Chaim Weizmann, all the president can do is “blow his nose.” For it is precisely the lack of power that enables the president to remain true to his nonpartisan outlook, which encompasses all Israelis—the view that, as we know so well, is absolutely essential. It is not the president’s job to take sides in a debate or to cast the deciding vote on an issue, but to serve as the social pulse for all the deep and fundamental public disputes stirred up by those political decisions. The president must have social sensitivity and attentiveness so that he can keep his hand on the public pulse and try to encourage the people and politicians to find a compromise, whenever possible. The most basic condition for the public’s trust in the president is that the president feels responsible for the wellbeing of Israeli society as a whole. This trust is the key to the president’s ability to bring his weight and influence to bear, first and foremost on the domestic scene, but also towards the outside world.

In recent decades, Israeli society has experienced far-reaching demographic and cultural changes. Religiously, nationally, ideologically, and demographically, Israel of 2014 is light-years removed from the Israel of my childhood, when the state was still being established. Israeli identity—unlike French identity or Swedish identity—keeps changing in front of our eyes, at extraordinary speed. Israeli society in its infancy had a clear and solid Jewish-Zionist majority, with two minorities—the ultra-Orthodox and the Arabs; but in 2014, every fifth pupil in first grade is an Arab, and every fourth pupil is ultra-Orthodox. As we are well aware, the debate is not restricted to the divisions between the ultra-Orthodox and the secular and between Arabs and Jews. It also rages, with equal intensity, between settlers and supporters of Peace Now and between socialists and capitalists. Israeli society today must look directly at the complex image reflected in the mirror and prepare for the challenges and opportunities that face it.

I am not naïve. Against the background of the diverse quarrels about the character and image of the State of Israel, I sometimes feel that the volcano on which we are living is about to erupt. This fateful moment, which was recently brought closer by the issue of Haredi conscription and the raising of the threshold for Knesset elections, is the climax of the struggle over the veto right that various camps in Israeli society demand over the nature and character of Israeli society. I believe, however, that this imminent eruption is a moment of truth for Israeli society. Our society cannot afford to engage in a zero-sum game among its sectors, just as it must avoid being sucked into a cycle of mutual boycotts.

The same applies to the inequality in our society. In Israel today, it is not only the distance between Tel Aviv and the Negev town of Yeroham that is too great, but also that between Herzliya and Ofakim or Hazor, and certainly between Ra’anana and the Bedouin town of Rahat. Israel is too small for there to be such a deep divide between periphery and center. City and village, metropolis and towns—yes; prosperity and success versus neglect and inadequate resources—no. The economic gaps, the disparities in the opportunities and options available to us, attest that the Zionist vision is still far from being realized.

When I look at Israel 2014, I see how far we have come in tearing down the walls between Mizrahim and Ashkenazim and between new immigrants and old-timers; but I also know that much remains to be done, especially when it comes to the walls between Haredi and secular Jews and between Arabs and Jews.

In its 66-year history, Israeli society and especially Israeli democracy have proven their resilience. Israeli democracy has proved to be a sturdy rampart against difficult and painful trials at home and abroad: wars, the assassination of a prime minister, even the evacuation of parts of the homeland. However, there should be no mistake: the resilience of Israeli society and the existence of Israeli democracy are not laws of nature. We should not be so presumptuous as to believe that they can never fail. The democratic game is based on acceptance of its rules, on agreement and partnership, without which nothing will survive. It is enough to look around the neighborhood in which we live and observe, with sorrow and horror, what happens when civic conflict erupts and there is no compelling democratic infrastructure to regulate it. In such a situation, even the most sincere aspirations for freedom and equality are liable to degenerate into political chaos, in the best of cases, and into civil war, in the worst. Israeli society is not immune to the growing social inequality and to the cultural wars in its midst. The creation of a bold civic partnership among the squabbling elements of Israeli society is an essential condition for our coexistence here, and for the survival and prosperity of the astounding political project that is the State of Israel.

The Government, having been elected by a particular majority and operating first and foremost as its representative, is not always able to build bridges between the various sections of Israeli society. Frequently, as the representative of the majority in whose name it was elected, the Government is called upon to make painful decisions that are liable to exacerbate the disagreements. This is the context in which the president, who focuses on finding the unifying elements—even where there is no unity—is of crucial importance. Society as a whole relies on the president as its agent for the delicate task of reinforcing the seams that hold society together. The President’s Residence is where a hand is extended to those who have been traditionally and systemically denied a place at the Israeli campfire. The President’s Residence is a place that strengthens the sense of belonging to the Israeli experience: inviting rather than excluding, listening to every community and tribe. The contrasts that exist in Israeli society and the tension inherent in the definition of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state make the presidency important and necessary for the State of Israel and for Israeli society.

We do not know what trials the coming years will bring. The president, with his or her nonpartisanship, must be someone who can rise above conflict, even in times of crisis, and act to prevent crises and rifts. In a society torn by such deep disagreements there must be at least one institution and one person who is trusted and accepted by all parties to the dispute. The president cannot resolve the arguments, but he must do everything in his power to enable all of us to live with these divisions and must groom the public not only to agree but also to agree to disagree.

The future of Israeli society depends not only on our ability to forge a covenant of partnership and mutual responsibility among ourselves, but also on our capacity to release ourselves from the naïve dream of the melting pot. The vision of a homogeneous society cannot be our vision. The message that can and must emerge from the President’s Residence must be one that encourages every group in Israeli society to shoulder its part in the joint responsibility for our future and to contribute its share to molding the essence and form of the State of Israel.

A newly elected president needs to be aware that he is entering a job that is almost devoid of power. This means that the position is shaped primarily by the character of its incumbent and his cultural, historical, personal, and human identity. The president’s agenda is determined mainly by the goals he sets for himself. This being the case, we can enumerate several ways in which he can fill the position with meaning.

The President’s Residence can serve as a center for thought about fundamental questions linked to the essence of the Israeli state and of Israeli society in the long term. The president can serve as a mediator between the Jewish character and the democratic nature of the State of Israel. The president can bolster the cooperation between Diaspora Jewry and the State of Israel, especially with regard to forging a meaningful link between the country and young Jews all over the world. The president serves as the public face of the State of Israel for the entire world—not as the representative of a particular point of view, but as the personification of the historical and collective entity that is the State of Israel. He is expected to provide the elected Government with the backing to which it is entitled, but must also reflect the essence of Israeli society and convey its distinctive qualities to the world, guided by a broad perspective that is not beholden to current political trends.

For myself, I see the presidency as an opportunity to promote the fundamental social values that have guided me throughout my years as a public servant.

I believe that the President’s Residence is the place where the vision of partnership among the diverse groups that compose Israeli society can be translated into a plan for action. I have always said that we have not been destined to live together but are meant to live together. The depth of the disagreements in Israeli society requires us to reinforce the infrastructure that is essential for all sectors to coexist. One of the many elements of this task is the need to launch extensive programs for education about democracy, which will create, for the first time, a meeting ground for young people of the various camps—ultra-Orthodox, religious, and secular; children from the center of the country and the periphery; Jews and Arabs—educational programs that will give the next generation of citizens, who are growing up in Israel's society of many voices, an experience of the democratic process, in which they must listen and engage in dialogue. I believe that the grueling process of building bridges among ourselves is also a prerequisite for the building of a bridge between us and our neighbors. This process requires the creation of a shared fabric of life in which a healthy process of diffusion takes place, with an exchange of views and ideas not only among politicians, but also and especially among the rank and file, among clerics, and among artists and intellectuals from every sector and community.

I believe that the president, as Israel’s representative to the world at large, must also give thought to Israel’s role on the international stage. Against the background of the criticism of Israel, it sometimes seems that we are neglecting our aspiration to be a “light to the nations” in favor of the vital and unavoidable task of trying to explain ourselves (hasbara) and to fend off the efforts to eat away at the legitimacy of the State of Israel. Israel's strength lies in its human capital. It can and must serve as a key player that contributes some of its cumulative experience and capacities to the rest of the world, in both the private sector and the Third Sector. We have amassed a unique body of knowledge, not only in the technological sphere, but also in the development of disadvantaged populations, crisis management, and much more. Without neglecting hasbara, I believe that it is important and in fact indispensable for Israel to identify and sustain its role in the historical chain that has seen the Jewish people as the consistent and unfailing provider of revolutionary and innovative ideas that benefit the world as a whole.

The presidency is a sort of social compass whose nonpartisan character is its raison d’être. The ability of the president to be perceived as someone with whom all Israelis can identify depends on his ability to avoid being a party to debate. The politicization of the presidency would pose a real threat to the institution and its function. The president must be able to serve as a social guide and buffer, even in times of trial and crisis, and to be a person who can show the way to the realization that coexistence is possible even in the passion of profound disagreements. The president must be able to pave the way for us to recognize that we can continue to have a shared Israeli life.