The Kind of President Israel Needs

Debate is raging in the Israeli political arena over Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s attempt to nix the office of the presidency or, at the very least, to change the way the president is elected.

The term of the current office-holder, Shimon Peres, expires in July, and elections for his successor are expected to be announced by the Knesset Speaker shortly.

But Netanyahu wants to delay the election by six months, during which time he would push through legislation to either cancel the largely ceremonial position or to at least ensure that it is filled by a person who is elected by the entire country, not just by the 120 members of the Knesset (in a secret ballot).

Those who oppose Netanyahu’s initiative say that he’s motivated primarily by animus toward MK Reuven Rivlin, a member of his own Likud party, who is widely viewed as having the best chance to win. The irony is that in 2007 Rivlin was endorsed by then-opposition leader Netanyahu when he ran for the post against Peres. Something apparently happened to sour their relationship.

Another reason posited by opponents is, as Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar put it, “you don’t change the rules in the middle of the game.” There is, indeed, something unseemly and undignified about manipulating the Knesset and its laws in order to settle personal or political accounts.

(The last such embarrassment came with the passage of the so-called Mofaz Law in 2009. Netanyahu wanted to make it easier for MK Shaul Mofaz to break away from the Kadima party and join his government. As the law allowed such a move only if Mofaz had the support of at least a third of Kadima’s 28 Knesset members, a daunting task, Netanyahu changed it, turning the country’s parliament into his personal rubber stamp.)

But while opponents question Netanyahu’s motivation and timing, none really makes the case that the institution of the presidency serves a vital need.

The job has become an expensive prize for politicians in their waning years whose parties don’t know quite what to do with them. It’s long on kavod and short on function. The only qualification is to be on friendly terms with at least 61 MKs who are prepared to vote for you.

What does Israel’s “No. 1 Citizen” do? Not much.

He accepts the credentials of visiting ambassadors and formally appoints state officials. He doesn’t decide who will fill these roles, but rather poses for a photo op in his official residence after they’ve been appointed by the appropriate authority.

Moreover, he has the power to pardon or commute the sentences of civilians and soldiers, though he traditionally does so only on the recommendation of the Justice Ministry. He also signs laws after they’re passed by the Knesset.

And of course he welcomes guests, including heads of state and heads of Jewish organizations worldwide, to his presidential residence. Oh, and he opens his sukkah to the public on one day of Chol Hamoed and gives out awards for volunteerism to civilians and for bravery to soldiers.

It isn’t that there isn’t a need for such things but that it could easily be met by others. The Foreign Ministry could arrange to accept the credentials of ambassadors in a respectable setting, with a photographer on hand; the Finance Ministry could formally welcome a new governor of the Bank of Israel, and the Social Affairs Ministry could  honor outstanding volunteers, who genuinely deserve to be honored.

And when it comes to the president’s most significant task — meeting with the parties after elections and doing the math to figure out who has the best chance to create a coalition of 61 MKs — there are more than a few retired Supreme Court justices who could handle it.

Clearly, there is no need for a 50-member presidential staff, secretaries, spokesmen, drivers and all the rest. There’s no need for a presidential residence on prime Yerushalayim real estate. And no need for millions in annual travel expenses.

There is only one task listed in the presidential job description posted by the Foreign Ministry that makes the position worth the money: “With his sensitivity, attentiveness, and accessibility, the president can feel the country’s pulse and serve all [emphasis ours] citizens as an address and source of support.”

Israel doesn’t need someone to sign pardons or laws or welcome visiting dignitaries. It certainly doesn’t need someone who will compete with the prime minister, as President Peres has done, issuing an interview last week that blames Netanyahu for the collapse of the peace talks.

What it does need, desperately, is someone who will rise above politics and sectarian needs and unite the country. It needs someone who is respected in the Jewish world and who can serve as a bridge with communities abroad. And it needs someone who is principled and steeped in Jewish values, who can remind the public and political leadership that Israel is first and foremost a Jewish country and must be true to its history and traditions.

Such a president would be worth every agora of the tens of millions of shekels spent annually on the post.