As of this writing, there has been no formal confirmation from the Prime Minister’s Office that Benjamin Netanyahu is bent on abolishing the office of the presidency.
For months, though, there have been rumors that Netanyahu is pursuing this goal, and these culminated on Monday morning with an Army Radio report quoting “sources in the Prime Minister’s Office” enthusing about the plan — a “historic change that would finally enable the proper management of the world’s most challenged country.”
In its coverage of the issue on Monday, the Yedioth Ahronoth daily reported that even though not a single minister from Netanyahu’s Likud supports the idea, and there seems zero likelihood of the necessary change to the relevant Basic Law being approved in the less than seven weeks before the Knesset must choose President Shimon Peres’s successor, the prime minister is pushing for abolition “with all his strength” and held a “blitz” of discussions on the matter with key figures in recent days. (Peres’s seven-year term ends on July 27; the Knesset must elect a new president at least a month before that date.)
News reports have ascribed Netanyahu’s enthusiasm for the notion to a variety of factors. Some say he wants to save the millions that the presidency costs the state — an absurd argument which might equally be invoked to cancel the prime minister’s job or, for that matter, to abolish our entire costly Israeli democracy. Dictatorship is so much cheaper.
Others claim it stems from his determination to thwart presidential frontrunner Reuven Rivlin — a former Knesset speaker from his own Likud party whom Netanyahu stripped of the speaker’s post in this parliament. Rivlin, an outspoken independent thinker, has had the temerity to challenge Netanyahu over the years on issues ranging from the democratic functioning of the Knesset to, more recently, the release of Palestinian prisoners. Sara Netanyahu, heaven help us, has also been factored in as a Rivlin critic. It beggars belief, however, that Netanyahu would press to abolish so central, historically anchored and symbolic an office merely because the prospective new president is someone he doesn’t much like.
The Times of Israel’s political correspondent, Haviv Rettig Gur, advances another ostensible rationale: One of the president’s key roles is, in the aftermath of elections, charging the politician deemed best able to form a majority coalition with the task of heading a government; Netanyahu may fear that a future election might leave him vulnerable in this regard.
Whatever Netanyahu’s game plan, however, his widely reported enthusiasm for a radical, even bizarre, reform that has no support among those who would have to enact it (his fellow Knesset members), and next-to-no support among those who would be affected by it (the public), can only give rise to profound concern about the prime minister’s current state of mind.
Under his watch, albeit with plenty of blame attaching to both sides, the peace process with the Palestinians has collapsed — and Israel now faces a likely Palestinian-led campaign of demonization, a rising tide of international criticism, unilateral Palestinian efforts to secure aspects of independent statehood, the potential growth of boycott and sanctions efforts, and a more than possible escalation of violence on the ground.
Relations with Israel’s key ally have deteriorated to the point where the US president gives interviews all but accusing Netanyahu of leading this country to rack and ruin, the secretary of state issues public warnings about a possible lurch into apartheid, and the senior US Middle East peace envoy predicts that the “rampant settlement activity” over which Netanyahu presides could “mortally wound the idea of Israel as a Jewish state.”
Meanwhile, a wave of hate crimes against Christians and Muslims perpetrated by settler extremists, despicably targeting places of worship, sweeps the country — on the eve of a papal visit, no less. Lawless settler radicals also physically attack the soldiers who risk their lives to protect them, and have now begun discussing killing these soldiers. But arrests are few and far between, and convictions almost unheard of — even though former security chiefs insist the phenomenon could be tackled effectively if only there were a will to do so.
And at this juncture the prime minister is expending energies on the abolition of the presidency?
Creative thinking for the benefit of Israel is a quality to be appreciated in the holders of high public office. But when prime ministers come up with lousy ideas — and canceling the presidency is one of them — there ought to be people in trusted positions with the credibility and seniority to quickly shoot those ideas down.
Israel patently needs a president as a unifying symbol of the state, a figurehead representing all of a society some of whose sectors are marginalized by the political system. It needs a president to approach national interests from a different perspective to partisan politicians with their coalition concerns. It needs a president to represent the state and its people at home and overseas with a broadness and absence of partisan interest that, by definition, no prime minister can muster. It needs a president to host popes. It needs a president to visit the families of the bereaved. It needs a president, as Peres himself put it rather charmingly in our interview two weeks ago, “because I think you need to have more than just one person at the top. One represents the administration, the government. The other represents the people and the mood. One represents the present situation. The other should act for the desired situation.”
This is not rocket science. This is stating the obvious. That it is apparently not obvious to Netanyahu gives rise to a whole host of concerns about what is going on in the Prime Minister’s Office, who he has surrounded himself with, and whether he lacks senior advisers with the influence to tell him, “No, Mr. Prime Minister, this is not a good idea. Drop it.”
Abolishing the presidency? Really? Forget it.
You want to institute radical reform? Maybe we should talk about imposing a term limit on the prime ministership.