All the President’s Yes-men

He or she may not have a vote in the cabinet, but the president must act as a counterweight to the haste of the prime minister and his closest allies.

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Benjamin Netanyahu and Reuven Rivlin, right, in 2012.
Benjamin Netanyahu and Reuven Rivlin, right, in 2012. Credit: Olivier Fitoussi
Amir Oren
Amir Oren

Yossi Sarid likes to relate how Golda Meir was anointed head of the Labor Party and prime minister on its behalf after Levi Eshkol’s death in 1969: “Golda wants it,” Aryeh “Lova” Eliav explained. Meir, of course, denied this, and said she gave in only because she was obliged to follow the will of her party.

MKs Benjamin Ben-Eliezer (Labor), Reuven Rivlin (Likud) and others want to be president – a necessary but insufficient condition for the position. Even were there only a single candidate, the election would still be required by law; Knesset members would still have to vote Yea or Nay, and he or she would have to carry the majority.

The president is not merely an improved version of the Knesset speaker, the head of the politicians’ union, and the presidency must not become merely the fulfillment of a fervent wish, a lifetime achievement award that a long-serving MK urges his colleagues to give him just because he really, really wants it. The presidency is not rest for the weary court jester; it is the court itself, particularly in fateful times.

What is needed is not a universal symbol but rather a strong president, for exactly the same reason that led David Ben-Gurion to dilute the authority of the position and block the election of a fairly independent political figure, then-Knesset Speaker Yosef Sprinzak, after the death of President Chaim Weizmann in 1952. Today, the Ben-Gurion model is considered a model of operational stability, by both its proponents and opponents. That was not the case at the time.

Ben-Gurion’s rule of the party, the cabinet and the state was rife with battles, intrigues, maneuvering and resignations. The collective considered the needs of, but was more important than, the individual. It gave him the reins of government, but also reined him in.

On one important issue – Ben-Gurion’s proposal to comply with a U.S. wish and send a battalion from the Givati Brigade to the Korean War, as part of the United Nations peacekeeping force and as an anti-Soviet counterweight – the cabinet convened with the president and left Ben-Gurion in the minority.

The president does not have a vote in the cabinet. The power of the president lies in being free from political account-keeping, if not in avenging the past then at least as an aspiration for the future.

Even if the assumption was not borne out in the case of Yitzhak Navon, who could not resist returning to politics after his presidential term (1978-83), he did demonstrate just how much power the president has when he pushed Prime Minister Menachem Begin into appointing a state commission of inquiry into the 1982 Sabra and Chatila massacre, which de facto – if not de jure – cut short Begin’s tenure.

That was a salient example of the application of presidential influence: The prime minister, together with then-Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, unbalanced the country and took it into Lebanon. But Navon took action after the fact; the precedent that he set took on practical meaning when President Shimon Peres put the brakes on the Begin and Sharon of the Iranian nuclear program – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and then-Defense Minister Ehud Barak – and helped save Israel from another unnecessary war.

The president, who by law receives reports of cabinet meetings and, by convention, briefings from the country’s military and intelligence chiefs, must act as a counterweight to the haste of the prime minister and his closest partners. Not always – only in extreme cases – and not too late, but rather ahead of time.

Peres’ intervention in heading off the Iranian adventure was, therefore, the most important of his official actions as president. He had partners within the system and in his House of Lords. In part because of this, Peres’ sentimental favorite to succeed him as president was Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, the former cabinet minister and Israel Defense Forces chief of staff, who died in December 2012.

The president is not at the command of the prime minister, but Netanyahu’s personal hostility toward Rivlin is insufficient grounds for voting for a man who leaked secrets from the Judicial Appointments Committee to political contractor David Appel and who has never held a position of military or state responsibility. (Rivlin became an MK at the end of the 1980s and Knesset speaker in 2003.)

Just as the attorney general is supposed to be capable of serving in the Supreme Court, so too the president must have, in addition to integrity, also proven ability to serve as defense or foreign minister. Then there’s the little matter of perspective: Woe to Israel if, in addition to the settlers who control Likud, which controls the cabinet, it also has a president who is opposed to territorial compromise in exchange for peace.

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