Just Say 'No' to Popular Vote for Israeli President

The public loves the idea, but let's not get ahead of ourselves - direct election of Israel's president is an idea whose time should never come.

Amiel Ungar
Amiel Ungar
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Amiel Ungar
Amiel Ungar

Polls conducted by two Israeli dailies and one television station displayed stratospheric support levels for the direct election of Israel's ceremonial president.

According to Israel Army radio, the idea of changing the presidential selection method was mulled by the prime minister's office because Benjamin Netanyahu was reportedly unhappy with the currently available choices. Netanyahu's interest in the idea may have also been motivated by the public's overwhelmingly favorable response to the pollsters.

The changed selection method also created an opportunity to extend Shimon Peres' term as president for another year, thus complying with the immortal strategy of Lyndon B. Johnson, who preferred keeping potential rivals inside the tent urinating outwards rather than ejecting them only to have them urinate inwards.

Peres will prove to be an even looser canon once he is freed from the constraints of his office –not that he was all that fettered by the presidency where he enjoyed publicly second guessing the political leadership on a host of issues. The extra year for Peres would provide a stopgap for filling the time till the legal and administrative machinery for the new voting method were in place. Fortunately, Peres himself shot down the idea and this means that the next president will continue to be elected by the Knesset - as he should be.

The problem is that this truly unsound proposal was not defeated on its merits and will continue to incubate till it resurfaces seven years down the road if the political circumstances favor it. Opponents of the proposal dismissed it on essentially technical grounds: It would require the change of a Basic Law – something that could not and should not be railroaded through the Knesset in the limited time remaining till the presidential election date.

MK Eitan Cabel claimed that the horses had already left the starting gate and it was unfair to change the rules in the middle of the race. It was necessary to put things straightforwardly: The direct election of an Israeli president is a horrible idea whose time should never arrive.

A directly-elected president is a feature of a presidential system just as a president chosen by parliament is the hallmark of a parliamentary system like Israel's. A ceremonial president elected by parliament knows that he is subordinate to the parliament and this helps rein in presidential activism. A directly elected president is ultimately accountable to the people not the legislative branch barring the exceedingly rare impeachment procedures.

Only one tragic antecedent exists for the current proposal – the Weimar Republic.

The uber liberal approach embodied in the Weimar constitution grafted a directly elected president onto a parliamentary system. The presidency, particularly under Paul Von Hindenburg, was viewed by Weimar's conservative opponents, who pined for imperial Germany, as the true embodiment of the popular will.

The president, who claimed a popular mandate, they argued, had a much better claim to legitimacy than the ephemeral musical chair coalitions that were also part of the republic's undoing.

When the Federal Republic of Germany arose following the Second World War, one of the lessons learned by the drafters of its Basic Law was the need to eliminate the ambiguity and restore the president's election to the legislative branch.

The direct election of a president will further erode respect for the Knesset by implying that – as opposed to Western European parliaments – it is incapable of choosing a leader. It would go hand in hand with the progressive emasculation of Knesset powers by entrusting the selection of key officials such as the Attorney General to "apolitical" search committees.

When differences of opinion developed between Shimon Peres and Benjamin Netanyahu, Peres took an expansive view of his presidential prerogatives and claimed that he was merely doing his presidential duty of serving the country by publicly pushing a different position than the government's. Imagine the consequences if Shimon Peres had been directly elected Israel's president.

A popularly-elected Peres would have turned to Netanyahu condescendingly and said to him, "you are prime minister by virtue of political coalition wheeling and dealing. I am the people's legitimate choice and therefore can enunciate and make policy." This standoff could have led to a constitutional crisis.

The support for a directly-elected president is indicative of the Israeli penchant for experimenting and trying new things out. While this trait undoubtedly favors the innovative spirit behind Israeli high tech successes in the government realm, constant tinkering with political institutions is not a virtue. It invites half-baked ideas, such as the short lived change in the electoral system prior to the 1996 elections, or the current proposal to directly-elect a president.

Even worse is system change that is intended to increase someone's political comfort level. Existing institutions deserve the benefit of the doubt unless they have disastrously failed us, and this is surely not the case with the current presidential selection method.

Peres and Netanyahu during the opening ceremony of the 19th Maccabiah Games at Teddy Stadium in Jerusalem. July 18, 2013.Credit: Reuters

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