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Presidential Reform

5 Febuary 2007

By Yisrael Ne’eman

The State of Israel needs the presidency as a matter of long term policy. Whether a certain individual president misbehaved or abused his powers for personal gain is another issue. Ezer Weizmann was forced to resign in 2000 due to financial questions and Moshe Katsav is facing criminal charges concerning illegal sexual behavior.

But the presidency should not be eliminated. In its present format the office has become one for politicians winding up their careers or as a possible stepping stone to move up the ladder. Such was the case when Yitzchak Navon left office in 1983 to rejoin the Labor Party leadership as they got organized for the 1984 elections or when Chaim Herzog finished his career from 1983 – 93. The presidency should not be political but rather an office representing other domains.

Domestically, the president’s function must be one representing the state to the people through continual tours to different communities and the encouragement of good works by all. On the foreign front the president represents the state and its people during visits abroad. The office is not to be involved in government or coalition policies on the home front or beyond Israel’s borders. The president will certainly be expected to take a moral and ethical position if need be, but veer far from politics.

In the checks and balances of the modern Israeli nation state there is the government serving as the executive, the Knesset as legislature and the judiciary is led by the Supreme Court. There is no other leadership arena inside the state structure unless the presidency is transformed into the office representing all other leading domains so necessary to our society.

The president should come from other aspects of public life outside of politics and the judiciary. To be an acceptable candidate for the presidency one must have left a paid political or legal position at least ten years before taking office and then be forbidden from entering politics or the legal system for another ten years. One can also consider a similar stipulation for the top brass in the army and police. There are enough candidates from the world of art, music, theatre, science, medicine, academia, education, sport, environmentalism, social activism, religious scholarship, philosophy, diplomacy, etc. to assure Israel an excellent president.

The presidency needs to be detached from politics as much as possible except for the bare minimum as stipulated by law, such as receiving the government’s resignation and calling new elections. The same goes for granting clemency and reducing sentences of convicted felons. Political and legal issues necessitating presidential intervention should be technical and peripheral to the functioning of the office.

None of this guarantees legally or morally correct behavior by a future incumbent, however if the presidency is up for discussion as an institution then at least a sweeping reform concerning content needs to be obtained. The vast majority of leaders arriving from other disciplines are overlooked in Israel as we concentrate on politics and the judiciary. Now is the time for the nation to build itself a fourth pillar of representation no less important than the other three.