The Function and Purpose of the Presidency
by Moshe Gurel, Executive Director, President's Office
At this time, with the political system in Israel tense and in a state of unrest, and anticipating the upcoming national Knesset elections, more prominence is placed on the unique role and status of the President of the State and the importance of the institution of the Presidency.
Israeli democracy, as in other countries in the free world that have parliamentary systems, was established by its founders with measures in place to ensure the non-partisan status of the Office of the President. To maintain uninterrupted integrity of government, the founders made the institution of the Presidency (one of the symbols of Israeli sovereignty) representative of all sectors of the State of Israel.
"The Basic Law: The Presidency" states: "The State of Israel is headed by the President." The President of the State serves in the highest office and is not a part of the three branches of government. The President has no political status.
"The Basic Law: The Presidency" was designed to ensure the independence of the President and the President's status so that the President can represent national values and norms that are not politically controversial and so that the President can express opinions on public issues that are in the national consensus.
Out of loyalty to and responsibility for this high office, the President may neither intervene politically nor express personal views on issues that divide the public. The President protects the national system and the unity of the citizens of the State.
The status and policy of the President reinforces the sense of partnership between the citizens and the State, as well as between the people and their national symbols; the feelings of belonging and affiliation are also bolstered.
The High Court handed down in its ruling that the President of the State "stands above all three branches of government . . . and personifies the state itself in his being." (1962)
Being set apart from the other government authorities and from politics is what shapes the role of the President as a unifying and non-partisan force.
The political system in Israel is intense and stormy. Political controversy is widespread, touches upon almost every aspect of the lives of the citizens, and may harm the unity of the people. The institution of the Presidency is different. There are very few organizations and institutions in the country that are free from political considerations. The Presidency is an anchor of stability, providing a sense of Statehood, continuity, and unity. The Presidency is a supreme institution of State and is not part of the political debate or political discourse. The citizens of the State from all sectors and all regions feel a connection and affiliation with the Presidency.
Furthermore, the State of Israel, the State of the Jewish people and a democracy, is the spiritual center for the Jewish people in the Diaspora. Thousands of Jewish communities in the worldwide Diaspora feel a spiritual connection to the State of Israel through their connection to the President of the State and the institution of the Presidency.
Throughout his term of office, President Katsav has received many delegations of Jewish communities from all over the world who came to see the President of the State. Likewise, the President, on his visits abroad, takes pains to ensure that an important part of his schedule is devoted to visiting the Jewish communities in the Diaspora.
Some of the Jewish communities abroad note that they relate to the President not just as the President of the State of Israel, but as the President of Israel - the President of the Jewish people.
The Knesset felt it necessary to stress the independence of the office of the Presidency. To show that independence, the Knesset granted the President the authority to appoint senior office holders in a way that emphasizes their independence from anything political or controversial.
The President appoints secular court judges, rabbinical judges to religious courts, and the kadis to the courts of Muslim law. The President appoints the members of the Council on Higher Education, the National Academy of Science, the Broadcasting Authority, the Authority to Rehabilitate Prisoners, the Chief Rabbinical Council, and the Wolf Foundation, as well as the Governor of the Bank of Israel, and others.
The autonomy and validity of these senior appointments is assured by the non-political nature and independent status of the Presidency.
The President also confirms and endorses the credentials of the Israeli ambassadors leaving to take up posts representing Israel around the world and receives the credentials of the foreign diplomats who have been sent to Israel.
Paragraph 11a of the Basic Law charges the President with the responsibility to sign every bill into law (except those that pertain to the powers of the President), as well as international or bilateral treaties that have been ratified by the Knesset.
Additional powers granted in "The Basic Law: The Government":
How can the citizens of Israel feel "unity and cohesion" towards their president, when their president says he believes in and wants to see a quarter of a million law abiding citizens uorooted from their homes?
When a new government is formed, the President delegates the job of establishing that government to one of the members of Knesset. This may be after elections, after a no-confidence vote, after the resignation of the prime minister, or the resignation of the government. This authority, which is well known in most parliamentary forms of government, requires judgment and is exercised after consulting with the various Knesset factions and is based on the President's personal evaluation of who has the best chances of forming a government.
According to paragraph 29a of the Law, Presidential consent is required for the dissolution of the Knesset by decision of the Prime Minister when two conditions have been fulfilled - that a majority opposes the government and that this prevents the orderly operation of the government. Under these circumstances, the President may have influence, if the President is convinced that these two conditions have not been fulfilled. In that situation, the President may be able to convince the Prime Ministers to avoid dissolving the Knesset.
Fulfilling these duties during a time of national crisis and political instability has given those serving in this position the power of influence. The President enjoys an image of neutrality, which grants a measure of freedom of action and ability to affect political dynamics, simply because the President is a symbol of national unity and the guardian of the basic principles of Israeli society.
The President receives ongoing reports from the Prime Minister and governmental ministers, the Chief of Staff of the IDF, the Heads of the Intelligence community (the Mossad and the Security Services), and others. In this way, the President has an understanding of the surrounding circumstances that guide the proceedings of the political system and does not take action in a vacuum on subjects of national importance.
Socially, it is clear that a society as replete with controversy as Israeli society finds it difficult to focus on shared symbols, and this is vital to the functioning of a civilian society. Inasmuch as the President of the State is also the address for appeals from minorities and different sectors of the population, the President can alleviate the sense of alienation from society for these citizens and can lessen their sense of deprivation, raising their problems for consideration as part of the national agenda.
Unfortunately, in the present Israeli reality, there is not full cohesion and identification of all of the citizens of the State with the symbols of State, such as the flag and the national anthem. However, the President, by fulfilling the duties and by the authority granted by the Basic Law, can be a force of unity and cohesion. All citizens can feel connected and affiliated with the Presidency, a common denominator for all Israeli society, with whom everyone identifies.
The institution of the Presidency is a supplementary institution of the government in Israel. The President is given duties and powers that cannot be granted to other institutions of government, both in times of stability and serenity as well as in times of crisis and controversy. (END) ***
Now, please decide for yourself whether Shimon Peres is not violating the office of the President of Israel. And if he is doing so, by stating that he will continue to push for peace, which lies in the realm of politics, foreign policy and Knesset authority, why he should indeed not be impeached from this office?
How can the citizens of Israel feel "connected and affiliated " towards their president, when their president says he believes in and wants to see a quarter of a million law abiding citizens uorooted from their homes?
When those in the Knesset watched as Shimon Peres became the official president of Israel, and they called out, "Yechi, Yechi, Yechi" (You will live!, or Long live...) those three times, perhaps all of us citizens who are tired of being trampled on and having a double standard when it comes to enforcement of laws, we should be shouting instead: "Impeach! Impeach! Impeach!"