The symbol of the country has been covered with a big, ugly and foul-smelling stain. That is the feeling aroused by the indictment being formulated against Moshe Katsav. But even when Katsav is replaced by another politician, the effect will only be to perpetuate the existence of a superfluous institution. An institution that was born in order to provide a job for the leader of the Zionist movement, Chaim Weizmann, and over the years has become an employment office for frustrated politicians.
The incumbent president will be the second in a row whose term is ending under a cloud of criminal suspicions - but it is difficult to recall in what way Ezer Weizman and Moshe Katsav contributed to Israeli democracy and officialdom even before they got into trouble and sank into decline. Weizman is remembered mainly thanks to his uncontrollable tongue, and Katsav for his random forays into the public arena, which left absolutely no impression on it, at least until he came under suspicion as a sex criminal.
Supporters of the institution of the presidency claim that the job expresses the unity of the nation, beyond the political power struggles. That sounds good in political science seminars and in citizenship lessons, but what exactly has the presidency contributed to national unity and to mending the rifts in Israeli society? Did Weizman and Katsav help in any way to mend the rifts of Oslo, the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, the days of Benjamin Netanyahu or the disengagement from Gaza? Was the President's Residence a genuine home for minorities and marginal groups? Weizman's expression of unity was an urge to antagonize the prime ministers who served alongside him, and Katsav insulted the Reform rabbinate and damaged our relations with Diaspora Jewry.
One could argue that the ills dogging the presidency have stemmed from the problematic nature of the past two presidents, rather than from a structural problem in the institution itself. The law sets a low threshold for the lofty position: "Any Israeli citizen who is a resident of Israel is fit to be a candidate for the office of president of the country." In other words, even a 5-year-old, a serial murderer or an illiterate can be the head of state, if he or she can convince 61 MKs to support them.
Presumably, it is possible to posit higher acceptance requirements, such as proven achievements in science, law, academia, the army or politics. But such a filter is not sufficient. Weizman, the builder of the Israel Air Force and the man of peace, and Katsav, who rose from a ma'abara (immigrant transit camp) in Kastina to the government compound in Jerusalem, were excellent candidates. Only after they were elected and served for a few years were they suspected of being criminals.
The problem of the presidency is that it is based on an insoluble dilemma: If the president speaks and expresses opinions on public issues, he will be controversial and will interfere with the elected government. If he is silent, who needs him? Why keep a golem in a large marble house in Jerusalem, at an annual budget of NIS 25 million, including 36 full-time employees and security expenses?
How might candidates Shimon Peres, Dalia Itzik, Rabbi Meir Lau, Colette Avital and Reuven Rivlin contribute to national life? If electing them to the presidency is supposed to compensate them for their dedicated work in the service of the public, they can be awarded the Israel Prize. That would be cheaper and less embarrassing, and would also spare them the competition.
Israeli society excels in directness and lack of formality. We have no aristocratic titles and no royal houses, no counts or dukes. The symbolic roles played by the president could be shared between the prime minister and the Knesset Speaker, and the granting of pardons could be placed in the hands of a committee headed by a retired judge. The time has come to get rid of this superfluous institution. And if it is difficult for the Knesset to overturn a basic law, here is a suggestion for a practical arrangement: With the retirement of Katsav, it will be decided not to choose a successor for a period of two years. If at the end of that time it turns out that the country can manage without a president, the institution of the presidency will be abolished.
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