As Shimon Peres nears the end of his term as Israel’s president, his office announced Thursday that the high-profile Presidential Conference, which his office has sponsored for the past six years and which has become a hallmark annual event of Peres’ presidency, will not be held next year.
The President’s Residence explained that the event has been held in mid-June every year since 2008, but the Knesset is expected to elect Peres’ successor as president in late May or early June, and the formal handover of the office is to be held in the first part of June.
The staff of his office felt it inappropriate to plan a Presidential Conference that would only be held after a successor to Peres has already been elected.
Peres’ role as head of state is largely ceremonial. The president is elected by the Knesset by secret ballot for a term of seven years and is limited by law to serving only one term.
The Presidential Conference has built a strong reputation over the years. This year’s event attracted particularly high-profile attendees, including former U.S. President Bill Clinton, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, American singer Barbra Streisand, and actors Robert De Niro and Sharon Stone, for an opening event marking Peres’ then upcoming 90th birthday.
The conference also has its detractors, who highlight the event’s high price tag, particularly this year. In response, the president’s staff pointed out that the 11 million shekel ($3.2 million) budget for the event was entirely covered by donations.
Ironically, a report by the State Comptroller’s Office in 2011, examining the first Presidential Conference in 2008, countered that “in the opinion of the State Comptroller’s Office, it is appropriate that an official event be funded from the state budget and not through donations.”
In another development related to the president’s budget, the Knesset Finance Committee is holding up approval of 290,000 shekels in funding for the president’s driver, after the committee learned that the president’s driver – who has worked with Peres for 15 years – was still officially an employee of the Regional Development Ministry, a government office that Peres headed before being elected president.
The Finance Ministry only recently asked the Knesset Finance Committee’s approval of the transfer of the budget for the driver and the car to the President’s Residence. Given these circumstances, MK Zvulun Kalfa (Habayit Hayehudi), a member of the committee, asked that approval of the transfer be delayed.
“There’s a problem involving transparency and improper management here,” Kalfa said. “We are supposed to oversee the work of the government, and not automatically approve every budget that they ask for. When we see that for seven years the budget has been transferred from office to office, and then half a year before the president leaves office all of a sudden they seek to have the position transferred, it looks suspicious.”
The director general of the President’s Residence, Efrat Duvdevani, informed Kalfa over the weekend that she would see to it that things were put in order with respect to the budget for the president’s driver and car. The president’s office informed Kalfa that, in recent years, the president’s staff has sought to have the Finance Ministry transfer the budget for the driver to the President’s Residence and point the finger at the Finance Ministry for refusing to make the switch.
The deputy director general of the President’s Residence, Yoram Raviv, is due to appear at the next session of the Knesset Finance Committee to explain the situation. “The time has come,” said Kalfa, “for government offices to understand that the members of the committee are not a rubber stamp.”