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Israel’s President: More Than A Figurehead

January 14, 2020

by: Joshua Spurlock, The Mideast Update

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In Hebrew, the president of Israel is known as the nasi, which can also be translated in the Bible as “prince.” It’s a fitting title for a role imbued with limited official power but potentially significant influence. While presidents in Israel can never become king like a prince in England, the president holds both ceremonial and actual authority. Depending on who holds the presidency and that person’s approach, the president can wield influence that far exceeds the role’s legal power. In Israel—one of many countries facing deep political polarization and division—an authority figure that stands above the political fray may be just what’s needed today.

The Role

While it’s typical for a president to come from the political arena, the role is intended to be apolitical. The website for the Israeli president’s office cited the Israeli Supreme Court in case 5699/07 Doe (a) vs. the Government Legal Counsel as saying the president “represents a non-partisan official nature, and the lines that connect and unify the various streams of Israeli society…He is supposed to serve as a model and an example through the manner in which he fills his role, as well as in his personal conduct.”

The most well-known official responsibility of the Israeli president is to appoint a prime minister nominee based on the election results. In Israeli elections, the people vote for political parties rather than individual candidates. Parties that receive 3.25% or more of the total vote are given seats within the Israeli parliament (Knesset), with every 3.25% equating to four seats. After the elections, according to Israel’s Basic Law: Government, the president has the authority to “task” an elected member of the Knesset to form a government. The Knesset is comprised of 120 seats, which means the ruling party must hold 61 seats for a majority government. Given Israel’s divided political scene, no single party has ever managed to secure the required 61 seats. The nominee must therefore form a coalition of parties, constituting enough Knesset members to nominate a prime minister with a majority of votes.

The president tasking a prime minister to form that coalition may seem like a symbolic rubber stamp of approval on the election results, but it isn’t always. Again, the presidency is meant to be apolitical, so the decision should be determined by which candidate is most likely to form a government, not the president’s personal political beliefs. For example, in 2009, President Shimon Peres nominated Likud’s Benjamin Netanyahu despite Likud winning fewer Knesset seats than the Kadima party—and despite Peres’ own beliefs, which were more in line with Kadima’s Tzipi Livni. Likud had a stronger path to a coalition based on the overall election results, and Netanyahu was named prime minister.

According to the presidency’s website, the president also has other powers, including the ability to issue pardons and accepting the credentials of foreign diplomats. But the president’s power doesn’t end where the law does.

The Person

Dr. Shmuel Sandler, political science professor emeritus of Bar Illan University and the president of Emunah–Efrata College, explained that the presidency can hold importance even though it is a “more ceremonial role.”

“To a large extent the job is decided by the personality who is in the position,” Sandler said. He pointed to historical examples: President Yitzhak Navon promoted the tradition of the Sephardic Jews (mainly Jews from Spain and Portugal). Israel’s sixth president, Chaim Herzog, succeeded in convincing the parties to form a national unity government in the midst of economic trouble during the 1980s. The previous president, Peres, “made it into a big empire, extended it, but again not in [internal] politics but more by becoming an international leader, an elder statesman and that’s what he gave the job.”

“In other words,” Sandler said, “there’s enough space there for the personality of the leader to form the role of the [actions of the] president even though formally it’s a ceremonial position.”

Sandler pointed out that the current president, Reuven Rivlin, has made his focus uniting what he calls the four “tribes” of Israel: secular Jews, ultra-Orthodox Jews, religious Zionist Jews and Arabs. “He didn’t go into the international scene, like his predecessor [Peres], he went more in putting his emphasis on unity, conciliation. His concern was that Israel is divided into four tribes,” Sandler explained.

This focus has correlations to political views as well. According to Sandler, Rivlin with his right-wing background has tried to blend both nationalism and liberal traditions. “Today it is difficult to reconcile the two; however, he is trying to do both. To be a person who is very dedicated to the Land of Israel on the one hand, and on the other one he is trying to protect all the civil rights of Israeli Arabs.”

In the truly political arena, Rivlin has actively called for governmental unity as well, while discouraging divisive rhetoric. In a time where political polarization dominates in Israel as well as the United States, Europe and elsewhere, Rivlin is trying to emphasize civility and putting aside differences. It’s a noble goal, but it will require more than just his voice.

“The presidents can only do very little in order to reconcile. If the tribes don’t want to reconcile with each other, the president cannot do much,” Sandler said. Nonetheless, he agreed that it’s important that Rivlin keeps emphasizing that message of reconciliation. In a sense, that’s the Israeli presidency summarized: limited actual power, but a leading voice aiming to influence for the good—not unlike a noble prince should be.

Photo Credit: Sharon Farmer/flickr.com

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