Not only in his handkerchief
Peres now faces a public task of supreme importance: trying to form a stable government that will include both large parties, Kadima and Likud.
The Israeli presidency's symbolic role drove the post's first occupant, Chaim Weizmann, to say bitterly that the only place he could stick his nose was his handkerchief. Nevertheless, the president has two important powers: pardoning criminals and deciding whom to ask to form a government. His responsibility for establishing the government, along with the need for his consent should a prime minister seek to dissolve the Knesset, occasionally put the president at the center of the public/political stage.
The Basic Law on Government, which dictates the procedure for establishing a government, gives the president broad discretion. All it requires is that he consult with representatives of every party elected to the Knesset before deciding who should form the government. Not only is the president immune to the dictates of 61 or more Knesset members, he is also immune to judicial review by the High Court of Justice. As far back as the early 1950s, the court, responding to a petition against president Weizmann by MK Ari Jabotinsky, ruled that the way the president exercises his discretion may not be adjudicated. In that case, Weizmann's refusal to ask another MK to form a government after David Ben-Gurion resigned led to elections.
Last November, it was President Shimon Peres' announcement that he saw no possibility of forming a government after Tzipi Livni failed to do so that led to elections. And even today, it is hard to completely rule out the possibility of another election, given the complicated tangle after the most recent one.
The fact that Kadima is the largest faction in the 18th Knesset, with 28 MKs versus Likud's 27, does not obligate Peres to choose its chairwoman to form the government. The president must consider who has the best chance of quickly establishing a stable government that will pass a confidence vote in the Knesset. Only in the second stage of the process, if the first candidate fails to form a government and the president sees no point in assigning the job to another MK, can 61 MKs force the president to give the job to an MK of their choosing. This article of the law leads to the conclusion that in the first stage - where we are now - the president is not bound by the numbers.
The Basic Law allows for the task of forming a government to be assigned to only one MK, who will serve as the prime minister. It does not allow for appointing two MKs to serve as premier in rotation. But the law does not prohibit a quasi-conditional mandate, one that would urge the MK who forms the government to forge as broad a coalition as possible for the sake of governmental stability.
The president's apolitical role need not prevent Peres from expressing public support for a broad, stable government, nor need it prevent him from intervening in the process to help forge agreements among the various parties, blocs and interests. There is a successful precedent for this: President Haim Herzog played an active role in forging the rotation government headed alternately by Peres and Yitzhak Shamir in the 1980s, and that was one of the few Israeli governments that managed to serve out its full term.
The purpose of the Basic Law on Government is to ensure that a government is formed as quickly as possible, in order to shorten the tenure of the transition government, which does not enjoy the Knesset's confidence and must exercise its authority "with caution and restraint," in the High Court's words. The law grants the president - who, according to the Basic Law on the President, is the head of state - broad discretion, for the sake of the public welfare. And this welfare requires governmental stability - not a paper government that will survive only for a short time.
Thus Peres now faces a public task of supreme importance: trying to form a stable government that will include both large parties, Kadima and Likud. Such a government would reflect the will of a significant majority of the public. And it would not stand or fall on a single vote.