Last week, President Shimon Peres dared to speak out against the government’s apparent plans to attack Iran. In doing so, he brought to the surface a question as old as the state itself.

Is Israel’s president merely a figurehead meant to smile and shake hands, travel the world, hand out medals and sign off on prisoner pardons? Or is the head of state entitled to voice his political opinion, even if it doesn’t conform with that of the country’s popularly elected leaders?

The president’s functions and duties are outlined in The Basic Law: The President of the State, which was passed in 1964. They include signing laws, appointing governments, accrediting the state’s diplomats and commuting sentences. The law does not state what the president is not allowed to do. There is nothing that would prohibit the president from speaking his mind about issues he or she deems important.

But last week, after Peres said in a television interview that Israel cannot “go it alone” in a preemptive strike to thwart Iran’s nuclear ambitions, a storm of controversy broke loose. Several Likud MKs came out swinging against the president; Environmental Protection Minister Gilad Erdan, for example, called Peres’s comments “a gross attack on the elected government’s official policy.” Fellow Likud MK Miri Regev, no stranger to controversial statements, went so far as to suggest Peres be impeached. “Peres remains the same old Peres: leftist, defeatist, an underminer who doesn’t support the prime minister,” she said. Even Jewish Agency Chairman (and former Likud MK) Natan Sharansky, who usually stays away from partisan politics, criticized Peres for ostensibly questioning the government’s decision-makers.

Chaim Weizmann said that the only thing he was allowed to stick his nose into was his handkerchief

Conventional wisdom has it that since Israel’s president is not elected by the people (but rather by the Knesset), he or she is to stay out of day-to-day politics. As a figurehead without any political mandate — pretty much like the Queen of England — the head of state should remain above political issues and focus on ceremonial matters.

Before the state was founded, Zionist leaders David Ben-Gurion and Chaim Weizmann fought bitterly over the leadership of the movement, but Ben-Gurion famously won the battle and in 1948 became Israel’s first prime minister. “After statehood, Ben-Gurion made a gesture and offered the presidency to Weizmann — who by that time was old, 74, sick and almost blind — but took care to define a symbolic role only to the office of the president,” said Yoav Gelber, one of the leading historians of Israeli politics. “Weizmann was quoted then as saying that the only thing he was allowed to stick his nose into was his handkerchief.”

Weizmann’s early successors — Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, Zalman Shazar and Ephraim Katzir — were primarily intellectuals (although Ben-Zvi had also been a politician), and “played the game according to the rules defined for Weizmann,” said Gelber, who heads the Herzl Institute for Research and Study of Zionism at Haifa University.

“Yitzhak Navon was the first politician to be elected to the presidency, and he returned to politics after his term ended. However, as a president he remained above politics, except in one instance when he threatened to resign if the government did not appoint a state commission of inquiry to investigate the affair of Sabra and Shatila in 1982.”

Navon, Israel’s fifth president (1978-83), this week defended Peres, who was his old rival for the Labor Party leadership. In a letter supporting Peres’s right to speak out on important matters, Navon recalled his own political involvement, which followed the massacre of Palestinian refugees in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Lebanon. “I intervened during my term when I felt this was my obligation as a human being,” Navon said. “A man like Shimon Peres cannot not speak his mind when he feels the fatefulness of the hour and believes with all his heart that it’s his obligation to exert influence.”

Yitzhak Navon (photo credit: Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

Yitzhak Navon (photo credit: Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

Navon’s words resonate even more strongly when one remembers that he served as president during Israel’s 1981 attack on the Osirak nuclear reactor in Iraq, which Peres famously opposed.

Navon’s successors (Chaim Herzog, Ezer Weizman, Moshe Katsav and Peres) were all politicians first. “Their terms in office changed the character of the presidency: Ezer Weizman, by his routine of visiting all bereaved families of the terror war, had implicit involvement in current affairs; Katsav did it by his personal behavior; and Peres by his persistent involvement in statesmanship,” Gelber said. “The symbolic character of the president’s office waned, though presidents still have plenty of ceremonial duties.”

Since the law doesn’t precisely define the presidency’s boundaries, it is up to each officeholder to leave his individual imprint on the job.

“Some presidents, without getting into names, had a rather duller or grayer presidency; some, like Katsav, unfortunately had a very colorful presidency. It really varies,” said Itamar Rabinovich, a former Israeli ambassador to the US, senior negotiator and professor emeritus of Middle Eastern history at Tel Aviv University. Katsav, Israel’s eighth president (2000-07), was convicted of rape, sexual harassment and obstruction of justice in 2010.

Not entirely bereft of political power

Despite the largely ceremonial role, the presidency is not entirely void of political authority. The president determines the first person to be invited to try to form a governing coalition, when an election doesn’t yield a clear winner. “In these situations, the president can have quite a bit of political influence,” Rabinovich said. The president can also commute the sentences of criminals, which may have important implications as well.

“It’s not an apolitical position. But there is a fine line that presidents and prime ministers try not to cross,” Rabinovich said. The relationship between Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Ezer Weizman, for example, was anything but cordial, he added. “Weizman did have a political appetite, and there was tension between the President’s Residence and the Prime Minister’s Office. But it was nothing major.”

President Ezer Weizman during an 1998 interview in his Jerusalem residence (photo credit: Flash90)

President Ezer Weizman during an 1998 interview in his Jerusalem residence (photo credit: Flash90)

Weizman, who served as air force commander and defense minister before becoming the head of state in 1993, did not hesitate to speak out on thorny political issues even after he had moved into the President’s Residence in Jerusalem’s posh Talbiyeh neighborhood. He once expressed his dislike for homosexuality and, after Alice Miller famously sued her way into the air force pilot program, compared women flying fighter jets to men darning socks.

“Those who criticized Weizman then would not necessarily criticize Peres now, and vice versa,” said Shlomo Egoz, of Bar-Ilan University’s political studies department. “That leads me to think that the reason for the recent controversy around Peres is not so much about the question of the limits of the presidency, but rather about the content of what he actually said.”

Peres is different from all his predecessors in that he is the only president who previously served as prime minister (1977, 84-86, 95-96). According to Gelber, the Haifa University historian, Peres “displayed an admirable restraint so far, until last week, far beyond my initial expectations.”

The current controversy — Peres versus Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak — was born out of the fact that the subject under discussion touches upon one of most crucial issues in Israel’s brief history: to bomb or not to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities, Rabinovich said. “It’s clearly a seminal issue with huge potential repercussions. The controversy runs very deep. There isn’t much of a gray area here for the prime minister and the defense minister: you’re either with us or against us. Taking a position in this issue clearly puts one in the midst of a very bitter controversy.”

From left to right: IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, Revital Gantz, Nili Priel (wife of Ehud Barak), Defense Minister Ehud Barak, President Shimon Peres, Sara Netanyahu and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu participate in an Independence Day ceremony for outstanding soldiers at the President's Residence in Jerusalem, April 26, 2012. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

From left to right: IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, Revital Gantz, Nili Priel (wife of Ehud Barak), Defense Minister Ehud Barak, President Shimon Peres, Sara Netanyahu and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu participate in an Independence Day ceremony at the President’s Residence earlier this year (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

At 89, Peres sees himself as the “responsible adult” among hotheaded youngsters, Gelber surmised. “I can empathize with this feeling, but I think it is out-of-place: he was not elected for this purpose, and if he wanted to play this role he should have followed Navon’s model of 1982: warn the PM [not in public], threaten him with resignation, and implement it if his warning is ignored. Then, as a private citizen, he could say whatever he felt was necessary to say.”

Of course, not everyone agrees with that stance. Rabinovich, for example, said Peres’s intervention was perfectly legitimate. “I guess Peres would say: ‘These are extraordinary times and my position is not ceremonial; it is, up to a point, political. I am the head of state — I have a sense of responsibility, I do have under my belt decades of experience and I do think that it’s not my privilege but my duty to throw my weight into the discussion.’ And that’s what he did.”

Certainly a president of Peres’s stature is allowed to voice a dissenting opinion on crucial issues, Rabinovich argued. “I don’t think any harm was done. Anyway, the question has been debated for weeks already and so now another significant voice was added to the debate.”

‘Given the unusual nature of the crisis, it is appropriate for Peres to take this unusual step, and I doubt it will become a common occurrence, or overused’

The current spat is actually quite ironic, said Gideon Rahat, a senior researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute and a Hebrew University political science professor. After all, until last week, Peres “was used by the Netanyahu government” in order to present to the world Israel’s prettier, peace-loving face, as something of a counterweight to the hawkish and feisty Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, he said. “Peres worked well for Netanyahu — until now.”

So how will the storm of protest that greeted Peres’s outspokenness last week influence the president’s future behavior? Will he recede to being a mere figurehead?

Haaretz columnist Gideon Levy points out that as a politician, Peres was never liked by the Israeli people and that he only become popular once he moved into the President’s Residence in 2007. The moment Peres forgot his ceremonial role and spoke his mind on a controversial issue, however, the Israeli mainstream abandoned its newfound love of Peres, Levy observed.

“Israel has proudly flaunted [Peres’s] beautiful face to the world — a statesman who has met both John F. Kennedy and Barack Obama and all the presidents in between, who can talk about nanotechnology and literature, who can console Israel’s Olympian judoka Arik Ze’evi and flirt with Sharon Stone, and above all who speaks of peace, peace and more peace. Thou shalt rise up before the hoary head: Israel rose in love to honor the eldest of its statesmen, and half the world rose with it. And suddenly it turns out to have been baseless love,” Levy wrote.

“The statesman momentarily steps out of his cardboard cutout; the Philodendron becomes a human being. All he does is say a few reasonable, completely non-subversive things about the need to coordinate with the Americans before attacking Iran, and all hell breaks loose. All adoration disappears.”

Levy fears that the public beating Peres experienced will cause him to “go back to being a potted plant.” Rahat doesn’t share that view. “I don’t think you can expect Peres to shut up. Peres will always be more than just a ceremonial president.”

Paul Scham, the director of the Institute for Israel Studies at the University of Maryland, also believes this episode is unlikely to significantly change the nature of Israel’s presidency.

“Israel is similar to most parliamentary systems in having a ceremonial presidency and that’s what fits the system. However, in future major and highly divisive issues, future presidents may well feel emboldened to speak up, but only in major crises,” Scham said. “My guess is that [Peres] feels that this is unusual enough to break the usual rules.

“In my view, given the unusual, perhaps unique, nature of the crisis, it is appropriate for him to take this unusual step. I doubt it will become a common occurrence, or overused.”