Sunday 8 June 2014

Is the Presidency Worth It?

The vote to elect the 10th president of the State of Israel is due to take place in a few days' time.  President Shimon Peres is nearing the end of his seven-year term, and the Basic Law that governs the term and responsibilities of the president dictates that there is no possibility to re-elect the president once he has completed his term.  For Peres, who is now 91 years old, perhaps this may finally force him into retirement.  It is easy to believe that Peres would seek re-election for a further seven-year term, if the law allowed for it, even at his advanced age.

The election campaign has attracted public attention for all the wrong reasons.  With the vote for the president granted only to the members of the Knesset, the Israeli public has no direct vote in this election and is relegated to being a mere spectator as the campaigns of the candidates play themselves out.  The public is a spectator with a huge vested interested, as the successful candidate will represent the State of Israel and the general public on the domestic and international stage for the next seven years.  The most recent unfortunate event, is the withdrawal by Benyamin Ben-Eliezer of his name from the list of candidates competing for the coveted office.  He decided to withdraw following the announcement by the attorney-general that an investigation would be launched into allegations that Ben-Eliezer has received illicit funds.  The timing of the allegations were clearly timed to damage his bid for the presidency, an objective that was achieved.  But this was not the only controversy during the lead-up to the election.

Before the final list of candidates was even confirmed, Minister of Regional Development Silvan Shalom suffered a similar public allegation.  He was accused of sex crimes dating back a number of years.  The attorney-general immediately launched an investigation into the allegations, and decided to close the case without taking any further action.  Shalom was effectively cleared of the allegations, but the public damage had been done.  He decided that he could not pursue his candidacy for the office of president under the circumstances.

There has also been controversy surrounding the candidate who currently leads the opinion polls, Reuven Rivlin.  He is the candidate from the ruling Likud party, and the one that you would expect to receive the natural backing of the prime minister and members of the government.  Due to personal clashes in the past, Prime Minister Netanyahu was extremely reluctant to publicly declare support for Rivlin. Only once the final list of candidates was published, and it was clear that the prime minister could not justify supporting any of the candidates, did he finally pledge his support for Rivlin.  This support, hesitant and begrudging as it was, had an unhealthy smell about it.  There are those who believe that the prime minister saw the writing on the wall in terms of an inevitable Rivlin victory, and realised that he could make his life in the future extremely difficult if a president is elected who did not receive his support.  Rather than suffer this situation, he understood that it would be better to publicly support Rivlin.

These allegations and controversies serve to taint the office of president, and not for the first time.  We have the unbelievable situation where a former president is currently serving a jail sentence after being found guilt of rape and other sex offences, some of them committed in the president's residence.  The office of president is considered to be above politics, and that of an elder statesman who keeps himself above the dirt and sleaze that has been associated with politics and public life in recent times.  Apparently, even this is not beyond the presidential office.  If any of the allegations made of the candidates have even the slightest basis of truth, the office of president is tainted.  And if the allegations are entirely without foundation, the office of president is tainted by the fact that people feel justified in using dirty tactics to prevent individuals from attaining the position.

When considering the role that president plays in Israeli society, it makes me wonder whether it is worth having the position at all in light of these shenanigans.  It is a position that is expected to be filled be a squeaky clean individual who is entirely trustworthy, and can proudly represent Israel on the public stage.  This image is being blackened more and more, but those who try to falsely fill the position, and by those who falsely try to prevent people from filling the position.  Even President Peres, who has very high public recognition as having done a good job as president, has come under criticism for being overly political in the job.  Does a person exist in Israel who can truly and honestly fill the position?  I am not sure.

The president has two key powers under the Basic Law.  The first is to call upon the leader of the winning party in a general election to form a government.  The second power is to pardon or commute the sentences of both soldiers and civilians.  The latter power is usually only exercised upon strong advice from a special committee set up to consider the matter.  The president also ceremonially signs bills into law (except those affecting the powers and responsibilities of the president), and has a number of other ceremonial roles, including the appointment of judges to courts and the receipt of credentials from ambassadors posted to serve in Israel.  The ceremonial roles are undertaken on the advice of others, and do not require the president to exercise his judgement or executive powers.  In my view, the role of president could be removed without a great loss to Israeli society or to its democratic nature.  It could also serve to save the treasury a few million Shekels a year in salary and running costs of the office and residence of the president.

It seems as though the type of person that was envisaged as the president of Israel may no longer exist.  The notion of a thoroughly clean and upstanding individual who represents each and every citizen of our country seems now to be only an illusion.  The mere fact that most of the candidates for president are current or former politicians tells a story of its own.  So do we push forward with electing somebody to the office who seems unable to fit the expectation, on the understanding that it is the best we can do?  Or do we abolish an office which seems to have little importance to the daily functioning of the country in our modern day?  It is a question that may be asked about monarchs across Europe, and non-executive presidents in other countries as well.  My vote would be to abolish the office, and clean up the dirty tricks that surround it.

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