The Fourth Branch of Government: On the Institution of the Presidency

Israeli public discourse has been accustomed to doubting the importance of the institution of the Presidency, seeing it as an empty symbol and ignoring its tremendous influence on the country over the years. A look at the past reveals a different picture—with implications for the future.
Yinon Guttel-Klein [1]
Prime Minister Menachem Begin with Israel’s fifth President, Yitzhak Navon, and his wife, Ofira

Photo: Hananya Herman, GPO

“I am familiar with the institution of the Presidency,” President Yitzhak Navon told Labor Party colleagues. [1] “I knew what I was getting myself into. It is absolutely clear to me what I will do as President. For this, I need no addition to my powers.”[2] “This isn’t a government resolution,“ President Yitzhak Ben-Zvi told an aide. “Here, I have something to say.“ [3]

Despite the parallels between the two Jerusalemite presidents, Ben-Zvi and Navon, it is especially surprising to find similar remarks from them about the contours of the powers of Israel’s head of state. It is surprising because their respective presidencies evolved in completely different political contexts: President Ben-Zvi was in office at a time when the executive branch was headed by his close friend Ben-Gurion, and their paths had been intertwined since their adolescent years. There were certainly disagreements and disappointments between the two men, but there is no doubt that the discourse between the Presidency and the Government (and its leader at the time) was cordial, collegial, and based on similar values and a shared past. In contrast, President Navon served in tandem with Prime Minister Menachem Begin, who had not only grown up in a completely different and practically opposite world, but was also the greatest rival of Navon’s party patron. Nevertheless, it was clear to both Ben-Zvi and Navon what the powers of the President were—and how much influence he exercised beyond those powers.

The question of presidential powers, which has been part of Israel’s political life since its establishment (and even earlier) into the present, was, is, and will probably continue to provide a platform for arguments and the expression of competing worldviews; but the intense argument about the President’s powers is only the tip of the iceberg of a lively public debate—or rather, one that comes back to life every once in a while—about the Israeli Presidency, its essential importance, its influence, and the manner in which it finds public expression. President Chaim Herzog argued that “the Presidency of Israel is a greatly misunderstood job,”[4] and indeed, the Presidency would appear the most elusive of institutions: on the one hand, it is perpetually on display; on the other hand, it is unexplained and difficult to decode. Elections to the Presidency over the years, both the intensely animated and the humdrum, have not contributed clarity, either. The Presidency has thus remained a kind of unknown variable, both seen and not seen, or rather—not seen as it truly is.

This article seeks to disperse the fog that has surrounded the institution of the Israeli Presidency and to shed light on its essential importance and influence, exploring not only the theory but practice—the manner in which successive Israeli President have shaped their roles over the years.


”Even if there were no presidents in the world, I would still assign the State of Israel a president, wind, and rain… all three things must exist.”[5]

“Are there any general comments about Basic Law: The President of the State? Is there any proposal to abolish this institution?”[6]

It is popularly rumored that the Israeli Presidency was only invented for Chaim Weizmann, to give him a respectable position in the state that he had worked so hard to bring into existence, and to the establishment of which he had contributed so much. Although this rumor is commonly invoked to claim that the institution of the Israeli Presidency is superfluous and should be abolished, there is no historical evidence for it. The decision to establish a Presidency alongside a parliamentary system was made even before the powers of the President were decided on, and long before Chaim Weizmann’s candidacy was submitted.

“There are two organs that are useless: the prostate and the President of the Republic.” So said French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau, in reference to the paltry powers of the French Presidency in the Third Republic,[7] and this, in somewhat kinder words, is sometimes claimed about the Israeli Presidency and its international counterparts.[8]

Nevertheless, there is no parliamentary democracy in the world that is not headed by someone other than the head of the executive branch, be it a king, a governor, or a president elected by the public or its representatives.[9]

These heads of state sometimes have only sparse functional powers, and it is not these powers that dictate the quality of the institution of the head of state—neither in Israel, nor around the world.

The importance of presidencies has been debated before. Although few studies have addressed the Israeli case specifically,[10] there are important arguments that appropriately explain the role that the president fulfills in a comparative context. First, the existence of a human figure as the head of state contributes, psychologically, to the public’s ability to understand their country’s political framework and identify with it.,[11]

Second, the head of state provides a sense of stability, which is also a function of the separate timetables for elections for the Presidency and for the Israeli parliament, or as MK David Bar-Rav-Hai said: “The President’s special position is that he is beyond these arbitrary fluctuations, outside the waves moving on the surface of our public life, which sometimes bring one force to power and sometimes another. In all this movement, something remains stable, and that stability is symbolized by the President of the State.”[12] Finally, especially in states that did not begin their lives as republics, the institution of the head of state forms a bridge between an ancient tradition of monarchy and the values of popular sovereignty.

The following pages are devoted to a deeper analysis of the Israeli Presidency, focusing on two aspects. The first is the essential trait of the Presidency as a non-partisan but undoubtedly and deliberately political institution. The common yet mistaken claim that the President is barred from being political—and as a consequence, that he must be beloved by all parts of Israeli society—is based on the mistaken use of the word “political” in contexts where “partisan” was once used correctly. The institution of the Presidency is political, because as we shall see, it is an essential structural component of the Israeli system of government—that is, of the Israeli political system and its checks and balances.

The second aspect we will focus on is the essential importance of the institution of the Presidency from the perspective of its influence, as opposed to its powers, through which this institution is usually examined. Despite the early roots of the Israeli Presidency[13], it is typically seen as an institution formed “on the move,” as a personalized institution inextricably identified with specific personalities—the Presidents themselves.[14] For this reason, although constitutional analyses and international comparisons are useful for examining state institutions, the core of this article is the actions of successive Israeli Presidents and the manner in which, through dialogue with the public and the other branches of government, they have defined the contours of the most inherently personalized institution in Israel and transformed it into a main engine of Israeli democracy—and both an indispensable and irreplaceable element of the national architecture.

This is not a purely methodological choice. It reflects the understanding that the essential importance of the institution of the Presidency cannot, nor should it, be judged through the lens of its powers. As we shall see, contrary to the prevailing conception, the Israeli President has exercised—and still exercises—tremendous influence on the State of Israel and Israeli society. This influence has been brought to bear mainly, and most strikingly, beyond the contours defined by the legislator. Not only that, but this is entirely consistent with the intentions of Israel’s elected lawmakers, who acted similarly to their international counterparts in allowing the President freedom of operation and understanding that the Presidency, as a pillar of Israel’s system of government, is essential precisely because its activities and influence lie beyond the contours of the powers granted to this institution by law.

Not everything about the current state of affairs is desirable, of course. Like all political office-holders, Israeli Presidents have also made mistakes, make mistakes, and will probably continue to make mistakes. This is why, throughout the length of this article, we will note the occasional public criticism of the President. As this article will reflect, the unique flexibility and freedom of operation granted to the Israeli head of state come with certain impositions or costs. Ultimately, the institution of the Presidency is unique among Israel’s governing institutions in that whereas the others are limited to what they have been authorized to do, the President, the “citizen number one,” may effectively operate like any other citizen—that is, he may do anything that he has not been expressly prohibited from doing.[15] Lurking between the lines of this article, therefore, is the question of whether the absence of clearly defined boundaries for a governing institution is a risk that the state and society are capable of accepting and accommodating, considering the limited power and essential influence of this particular institution.

Formal powers

Assigning the task of forming a government

“The President enjoys a special public position; his lofty position, set apart from the other branches of government, highlights his independence.”[16]

“The Knesset reflects the diversity of the nation; the Office of the President was created to symbolize and embody the unity of the nation, despite its diversity.”[17]

In a time of partisan conflict of the sort that the State of Israel had never experienced, President Rivlin was called on repeatedly to assign the task of forming a government and came under fierce criticism, from both the right and the left. Between indictments and minority governments, ambitious rotation agreements and early dissolutions of the Knesset, holdover budgets and a global pandemic, President Rivlin was already being attacked for every decision he made, when suddenly the question of his powers also came up and even reached the Supreme Court.[18]

The President’s two most striking and well-known formal powers, enriched in Israel’s Basic Laws, are the authority to grant pardons and the obligation to assign the task of forming a government. In both cases, although these powers are ostensibly defined by law, not only do the President’s values and politics find expression, but in certain cases, even many cases, they find expression in a way that come under criticism from large sections of the public. What, therefore, is the President’s influence, in theory and practice, on the formation of a government? Do the legal contours of his role allow him to undertake certain public-political actions, or do they compel him to take certain prescribed actions?

The simple answer is that the President’s freedom of maneuver is close to absolute, and as such, so is his ability to give expression to his values and vision for the State of Israel. In fact, the President is not only empowered to exercise personal judgement when selecting a member of the Knesset to form a government; this is an obligation imposed on him by the Knesset, and contrary to popular claims, an obligation he may exercise without limitations or accusations of overstepping his authority.

The Knesset were explicit in defining the only boundaries governing the President’s involvement in this matter: the President must consult representatives of parliamentary groups and assign the task of forming a government to a member of the Knesset within a defined timeframe. Nothing more and nothing less. These sparse limitations were deliberately phrased without further elaboration, and they have not been changed over the years. The Knesset has blocked, time after time, every attempt, on the right and the left, to place restrictions on the President’s freedom of operation. Proposals to prohibit the President from assigning the task of forming a government to anyone legally barred from holding ministerial office, or to require him to assign it to the leader of the largest party, have been made and discussed at length more than once, and none was ever accepted. In its decisions, the legislature has underscored that the head of state must operate in accordance with his broad personal judgment, based on experience, understanding that either way, it is the parliament that will ultimately approve or reject any putative government.

Consequently, essentially all Israeli Presidents have exercised a necessary and discernible degree of political involvement and have come under criticism for the actions they have taken. The Herut Party vociferously criticized President Ben-Zvi for offending its honor by inviting its representatives at the end of his consultations, instead of in order by party size, as customary; it assailed him again when he overstepped the mark, according to Menachem Begin MK, in forestalling the dissolution of the Knesset after the resignation of the government by holding consultations with all the faction leaders so that a new government could be established under Ben-Gurion’s leadership.[19] President Shazar was criticized for taking extremely assertive action to create as broad a government as possible, including making offers to members of the Knesset to serve as ministers and deputy ministers in specific ministries[20]; in making these offers, Shazar was treading a fine yet convenient line between throwing casual suggestions and actively mediating negotiations. President Katzir suffered criticism when he worked to convince Golda Meir to retract her resignation[21], despite acting quite consistently with his predecessors’ conduct on this matter, who intervened within coalitions—and sometimes even within parties—to try to prevent early elections. Even Chaim Weizmann, who served only briefly as President, was accused by Yohanan Bader MK of a “putsch, albeit without any gunshots or army, but nevertheless a putsch[22],” for not assigning the task of forming a government to the Opposition.

President Chaim Herzog’s conduct, which was met with intense public admiration and opposition, brought the President’s freedom of operation on this matter to new heights. Herzog served at a time that, owing to the deadlock between the blocs and the “stinking maneuver,” seemed to be the most acute moment of partisan uncertainty in Israeli history, or as he put it: “[The nation] is stuck in a public and political rut, the likes of which it has never known.[23]” The anxious President proceeded in accordance with the political reality and the freedom of maneuver granted to him by the Knesset. Twice he refused to invite representatives of the Kach faction to hear whom they would recommend as prime minister, drawing on the freedom granted to him by the absence of the word “all” in the text of the law, which mandates him to “consult the representatives of the Knesset Parliamentary Groups.” Moreover, in a move without precedent, the President sat in the coalition negotiations to push with all his might for the establishment of a unity government[24].

In 1990, in a situation of perfect parity between the size of the blocs in terms of their recommendations, Herzog chose to assign the task of forming a government to Shimon Peres MK, and not the incumbent prime minister, Yitzhak Shamir. He explained his decision in terms of several public, political, and moral reasons, based on the important fact that the law was deliberately vague, intended to rebuff the allegation that his considerations were swayed by his identification with the political camp to which he had belonged before his election. Herzog’s first reason was that despite the parity between the blocks, Peres’s faction was larger than Shamir’s at that particular moment (after the liberal faction had split off from the Likud). His second reason: the sixty members of the Knesset who supported Peres represented a larger section of the population—around 24,500 more voters than those who had supported Shamir. His third and perhaps most dramatic reason was that “according to our constitutional system, the parliamentary arena is the place for contestation between approaches and worldviews; sometimes one side wins support, sometimes another,” such that in the case of a perfect tie, an opportunity was to be given to an alternative to a recently toppled government[25].

The two years in which President Rivlin was called on to assign the task of forming a government time after time demonstrated the President’s immense influence, such as in the case of the “President’s Framework[26],” which, according to the parties to the coalition, was the platform or inspiration for the agreement that was ultimately signed, and as was clear from the fierce public criticism that followed from many sections of the population and certain candidates.

A narrow look at the cases described above would classify them as evidence of the existing practice that has developed in Israel but leave open the question of whether they are desirable. Quite rightly. Certain actions undertaken by Israeli Presidents do not appear consistent with the values of the Presidency as shaped over the years. But this would indeed be a narrow, practically naïve perspective. The obligation that the legislator has imposed on the President, an obligation that he can neither evade nor reassign to the legislature, as President Rivlin recently lamented[27], is based on reasons that get to the core of the unique position of the President in Israel’s governing system.

Beyond the obviously symbolic essence of having the head of state assign the task of forming a government, there are two main reasons for the President’s involvement in the matter. The first is the stability of the Presidency, which crosses parliamentary terms and provides a different, broader perspective, and which like the government, is also elected by the legislature. Minister Pinhas Rosen described this stability thus: “The President symbolizes the state as it is, and not changing public opinion, whereas the parliament represents public opinion at a certain point in time. Public opinion changes, whereas the President is a symbol of the state above the parties and above swings in public opinion[28].” The second reason is that the head of state can work to mediate between different ideologies and partisan camps. Immediately after the most polarizing and divisive moment in national life—elections to the Knesset—the elected parliamentary groups are required to visit the President, who does all he can to broaden the coalition-in-the-making to contain as broad a spectrum as possible of voices and perspectives to shape public policy. This, as we have noted, is how all Presidents of Israel have proceeded in this task.

Indeed, the President’s involvement is limited to getting the process moving; it does not compel the Knesset, which has the final word on whether to accept or reject the government that is ultimately formed, but in terms of its public-political and sometimes also partisan-political influence, the President’s involvement carries great value. Moreover, after recent national elections, when President Rivlin decided that the consultations would be broadcast live[29], we saw the extent to which changing the format of the consultations from closed discussions to a kind of extended press conference detracted from the President’s ability to mediate and bring the sides together. Accordingly, it does not appear to be a coincidence that the major breakthrough on the road to the 2019 unity government came when the President, like his predecessors, pushed for more intimate meetings away from the glare of the TV cameras[30].

The history of government formations in Israel demonstrates that the President’s freedom of maneuver is essential, desirable, and in fact one of the organizing principles of the Israeli democratic system. Israel’s Presidents have understood this point, and so have members of the Knesset. It is an obligation assigned to the President by the public and its elected representatives, who foresaw its importance if—and as would soon turn out, when—Israel experienced periods of instability.


I don’t wish to be ‘symbolized,’ Moshe.” (Chaim Weizmann, responding to Moshe[31] Sharett, who defined his role as “just to be a symbol.”)

The power to pardon is probably the best-known and most identifiable power of the Israeli Presidency, and here too, successive Presidents’ ideological preferences have found expression and influence and come under criticism accordingly. On the subject of pardons, the criticism of President Chaim Herzog is particularly memorable in two cases. The first was his precedent-setting and preemptive pardon of the Shin Bet officials involved in the Bus 300 affair, a pardon that followed a meeting in the middle of the night with the director of the Shin Bet, followed by representatives of the attorney-general, who pledged to defend the decision. The second was his decision to pardon criminals in the Jewish underground, which from the President’s perspective, he awarded despite—not because of—the immense partisan political pressure on the matter. Criticism came both from the public and from within the legal system. President Herzog, as was his wont, explained his decisions in a detailed, rational manner and worked especially hard to communicate his rationale to the public, in order not to damage trust in the Presidency[32]. This rare transparency, making sincere public statements to the nation, is one of the most presidential peaks in Israeli presidential history, and Herzog was of course not the only President who proceeded thus.

All Israeli Presidents have proceeded in a deliberate and ideological manner on the subject of pardons, especially in the case of sweeping pardons—those granted, and those withheld. In granting pardons, Israeli Presidents have paid special attention to Independence Day and other special occasions, and in President Rivlin’s case, also specific sections of the population, such as immigrants from Ethiopia or women trapped in prostitution, or widespread tragedies such as the COVID-19 pandemic. The same goes for sweeping decisions by successive Presidents not to pardon sex offenders, people responsible for traffic accidents under the influence of alcohol or drugs, and violent offenders in the family. In the case of more specific cases, as we have seen, Israeli Presidents have been criticized for their decisions, from Chaim Weizmann’s decision to pardon the head of the Haganah’s intelligence unit, Isser Be’eri, to President Rivlin’s decisions regarding Elor Azaria, Moshe Katsav, and Uzi Meshulam.

We cite these cases in order to illustrate the earlier point: a statement by the President, specifically the President, carries significance. There are cases in which the authority granted to the President by law is absolute, or close to absolute—because of the need for the ministers of justice or defense to countersign a pardon—and, on the face of it, no special reason must be given to the public, but nevertheless, the President’s vision, will, and values have enormous and intentional influence. For this reason, there are also cases in which the courts explicitly refer people to the President to request a pardon, understanding the singular public import of the President’s decision on the matter. We cite these cases in order to illustrate the earlier point: a statement by the President, specifically the President, carries significance. There are cases in which the authority granted to the President by law is absolute, or close to absolute—because of the need for the ministers of justice or defense to countersign a pardon—and, on the face of it, no special reason must be given to the public, but nevertheless, the President’s vision, will, and values have enormous and intentional influence. For this reason, there are also cases in which the courts explicitly refer people to the President to request a pardon, understanding the singular public import of the President’s decision on the matter[33].

In the case of pardons, the reasons for the President’s public influence are inextricably linked with his constitutional status. Oftentimes, in addition to claims that the Presidency is unnecessary, it is argued that when reapportioning his powers, the power to pardon should be awarded to the minister of justice[34]. This argument, even when translated into a proposal to require the President to consult the courts before making a decision[35] —largely misses the essence of a pardon, which requires both a different perspective from that of the executive or judicial branches and different powers. Justice Haim Cohn expressed this well, writing:

I might have been able to see grounds for concern and reasons to cry foul if the power under discussion were held by the Government or one of its agencies, or even if it were held by the Knesset, because in that case, there may have been a mixture of functions between the judicial branch and the executive or legislative branches. But the President of the State stands above all three of these branches of government. He embodies the state itself, and it is in the name and on behalf of the state that the judicial branch sits in judgment, and from which it derives all its power and authorities… and there is no better or more appropriate branch to exercise this power than the President of the State[36].

This is also the reason why, in all discussions in anticipation of a constitution for Israel, the power to pardon—the exercise of which is clearly an expression of ideology and values—was always assigned to the Presidency, in the belief and expectation that it was the branch of government that would give the most considered and dignified expression to these elements. Moreover, the main arguments over the years in favor of reforming the power to pardon were pointed in the opposite direction, with a view to abolishing the justice minister’s countersignature and leaving this power exclusively in the hands of the President[37].

Signing laws

“The President symbolizes the state and its moral and democratic values… he stands tall above power struggles in the state[38].”

Between the President’s operative powers, such as the power to pardon and assign the task of forming a government, and his symbolic but influential involvement in Israel’s foreign affairs, as we shall discuss soon, is another power, which exists in the seam zone between the two domains: the President’s signature on legislation.

It is universally accepted that the President’s signature on laws passed by the Knesset is both required, on the one hand, but does not delay their entry into force. So much so, that in many cases, laws have entered into force before reaching the President’s Bureau for his signature[39] and it was clear that this power was entirely symbolic.

Nevertheless, even this symbolic authority has served Israeli Presidents as a means of expressing public positions, in accordance with their beliefs, even when this had no substantive impact on the law at hand. President Ben-Zvi, for example, refused to sign the law abolishing the death penalty[40], and President Rivlin signed the Nation-State Law in Arabic[41]. These are no mere anecdotes, but rather cases that cut to the heart of the Presidency and invite an international comparative analysis.

As we have seen, many states of the states with presidencies like the Israeli model—a president who does not head the executive branch—empower their presidents to exercise some personal judgment when it comes to signing legislation, lending significance to that judgment by allowing it to delay the entry into force of laws[42]. There are states in which the president may refer a law for examination by a constitutional court before his signature, and there are states that allow the president to return bills to parliament with appended explanations. Crucially, in all these states, a law may pass even against the president’s will—whether through parliament (by whatever majority) or the courts—but the president’s authority allows him to trigger further debate in the relevant institutions, and in practice, also among the population at large.

This state of affairs is consistent with the nature of the role of a president as someone who both represents a nation, thus allowing him to enjoy relatively broad trust, including from communities that lack influence in certain governing institutions, and is also a stable national actor, with a less frequent turnover than parliament. It is no wonder, therefore, that in preliminary deliberations in anticipation of a constitution for Israel, this power was deemed appropriate and proper[43]. Unsurprisingly, it was Ben-Gurion who insisted time after time that this particular power be removed from the president’s authorities, as part of his stubborn campaign to restrict President Weizmann’s powers[44]. The strongest advocate of letting the president return a bill to parliament was Menachem Begin MK, who together with his colleagues, argued that in the absence of a second chamber in the Israeli parliament, it was supremely important for the president to be able to lay the foundations for further debate, perhaps in a more expanded or in-depth format, of laws requiring this[45]. Haim Laniado MK also supported this position some years later, saying: “We proposed, in the committee, to expand the powers of the president… I wish to address one of them, namely that the president should retain the power to return a bill to the Knesset, on a one-off basis, after it has been been voted on and passed, for further debate. Since our parliamentary democracy is unicameral, sometimes there is a need for such power to be granted to the president[46].”

This article does not deign to deal at length with operative proposals to reform the powers of the president, but it is important to note that in the absence of a second chamber in the Israeli parliament, the authority to force the parliament to conduct further debate would appear to have great value in the present day, certainly in a society like Israel’s, with its multitude of opinions, identities, and conflicts.

Relations with other branches of government

I understood that the law gave me no cause to deduce that I had to be a puppet manipulated by the government. The law clearly stated what I had to do, but said little about what I was not aliowed to do..”[47]

“The president is an institution of government, who aspires to help the State of Israel realize itself in the best possible way. This aspiration endeavors not to tread into the fields of operation of other formal institutions, but rather to operate in complicated places, where there is value to the president of the state.”[48]

The Israeli president’s best-known formal powers—granting pardons, assigning the task of forming a government, and signing laws—invite us to pause for a moment and delve in detail into the tremendous drama surrounding the relations between the president and the other branches of government. Even in the context of the three powers granted to the Israeli president by law, he finds himself involved in domains close to the hearts of the other branches of government.

It is doubtful whether this point needs to be restated at this stage, but we must not forget that the president of Israel is a public-political figure and that the institution of the Presidency is a political institution. Unfortunately, Israeli discourse has become accustomed to see “political” as a dirty word, associated with scheming and divisiveness, but this is an error that no democratic society can afford to make. Politics is everything connected with the governance of the state, the polis; and the president, as part of the system of governance, cannot and need not be detached from this.[49]

Indeed, when we say that the president is “political,” we mean this in the broadest and most general sense of the term and do not refer to party politics. The president must not be a partisan figure, and therefore in most constitutional discussions around the subject define him as non-partisan and discuss at length his party-political history and how to avoid any partisan associations, even at the level of the symbolism, such as by requiring him to cancel his membership of a particular party or its institutions[50]. It took time after the establishment of the state for the institution of the Presidency to establish itself outside the party system, and it happened during the tenure of President Katzir, who despite being the candidate of a political party was seen, rightly, as non-partisan. His predecessors, President Ben-Zvi and President Shazar, were involved in deliberations and activities within their parties, even during their time in office; their successors would already learn to maintain a separation.

The president’s public status and substantive and symbolic powers create frictions at times with the other branches of government. When it becomes clear that the institution is not marginal and insignificant after all, but rather exercises a constant influence on the state and its society—as we have seen in the case of its formal powers, and as we shall elaborate soon—nobody can claim to be surprised. Therefore, despite the tendency to understand crises between the branches of government as based on poor personal relations between presidents and prime ministers—from Weizmann and Ben-Gurion to Rivlin and Netanyahu, through (almost) all presidents and premiers in the middle—the conflicts are much deeper and more substantive[51].

Nevertheless, the mere existence of the institution of the Presidency—and in this context, the Israeli case is consistent with counterpart institutions around the world—creates points of intersection and involvement that spill over into the domains of the other branches. Sometimes the tensions or relations between the branches of government play out at the symbolic level of the office, such as in the president’s speech at the State Opening of the Knesset or swearing-in of judges, and sometimes they go up a step, such as with the president’s presence in the Knesset during important decisions such as the vote on the budget, as Ben-Zvi and Shazar were accustomed[52], or his personal weekly briefing from the government secretary immediately after the cabinet meeting[53].

But sometimes the president’s involvement goes up another notch, even several notches, for better and for worse. President Ben-Zvi’s public involvement in the drafting of the Law of Return was intensely criticized, and so was his demand not to raise the electoral threshold because of how it was expected to prejudice the Arab parties[54]. President Shazar supported territorial concessions after the Six-Day War but opposed such concessions in Hebron[55], which of course earned him criticism from both sides of the aisle, not to mention his intention (which he did not follow through) to protest on Shabbat opposite a prison against a court decision to apprehend the arsonists who set fire to the Eros sex shop[56]. President Katzir made statements to the media in favor of learning lessons from the Yom Kippur War, which were perceived as pushing for the formation of a commission of inquiry, which is what ultimately happened.

It was Katzir, to a large extent, who transformed the position of the president from a lone personality who exercised influence in virtue of his background and conditions to a figure whose knowledge and expertise played an important role, which necessarily placed him in a completely different position vis-à-vis the executive branch. As a scientist, Katzir understood that if he wanted to transcend the confines of being a symbol, he had to understand subjects that he had never approached before, and therefore he was the first president to convene, from time to time, a forum of senior advisors to join him in delving into issues of acute importance to the fate and future of the State of Israel. Among the members of this forum were professors, including Nathan Rotenstreich, Aryeh Dvoretzky, Michael Bruno, and Yuval Ne’eman; retired generals, including Yitzhak Rabin, Meir Amit, Amos Horev, and Matti Peled; and senior officials past and present, such as Ephraim Evron[57]. This forum ceased operating, but over time, the staff at the Office of the President would see the addition of a range of advisors, who help to ground the president’s knowledge and understanding in the various fields of policy with which he is involved.

In the context of the relations between the branches of government, it is important to recall that Katzir was the first president, but absolutely not the last, to serve opposite a prime minister from the rival partisan camp; this state of affairs would of course have immense implications for successive presidents’ activities and influence, even if they avoid admitting it[58]. The first half of Israeli presidential history ended with the high-point of tensions between the president and the executive branch: President Navon’s public, full-throated, and uncompromising call for an investigation of the events of Sabra and Shatila. In a dramatic televised address, Navon demanded:

Our duty toward ourselves, toward our conception of ourselves in our own eyes, and toward that section of the civilized world of which we see ourselves a part, is to investigate promptly and precisely, through credible and independent figures, everything that happened in this miserable incident, and if necessary, to draw the full conclusions from this inquiry[59].

This speech made a critical contribution to the establishment of the Kahan Commission.

In the latter half of Israeli presidential history, these relations witnessed escalations. Besides President Ezer Weizman’s well-known remarks about the Knesset and the government[60], which were of a public-political, not partisan, nature, President Chaim Herzog also rebuked the Knesset when he thought the situation demanded it[61], and he gave more than one speech, like President Rivlin after him, against attacks on the justice system and the rule of law[62].

Moreover, in what seemed like an exceptionally unusual intervention, President Herzog and others worked, each in his own way, to reform the Israeli system of government, understanding that it was necessary to “change the shit-a,” to quote the play on words (“system” in Hebrew is shita) written on the placards at the unprecedented and practically inconceivable protests that Herzog hosted at the President’s Residence[63]. Even President Peres, who worked hand-in-hand with Prime Minister Netanyahu on so many issues, was “anonymously” accused by the government of endangering Israel, with charges that he had “forgotten what the president’s role is in the State of Israel[64].” President Rivlin also faced similar allegations, accusing him of acting in a manner unbefitting of his office, once from one side of the party map and then from another—especially following his repeated remarks against the conduct of the Knesset, the government, and the courts. The most unusual incident in President Rivlin’s case was the letter he sent the Knesset Constitution, Law, and Justice Committee ahead of a debate about the so-called Nation-State Bill. Rivlin wrote that the bill, as worded at the time, may “harm the Jewish people, Jews throughout the world and the State of Israel, and may even serve as a weapon in the hands of our enemies[65].”

It is hard to argue, therefore, that the president of Israel is a non-political or uninfluential figure, because if he were so neutral and anemic, we would not see tensions of any sort. Not only that, but it is hard to argue that it is a figure so completely void of content and influence who, of all people, should head the state. On the contrary, the fact that all parliamentary democracies in the world maintain a separate head of state, operating alongside the head of the executive branch, suggests that this relationship, for all its complexity and challenges, can maintain the stability of the political system and a tradition of governance that can enhance citizens’ identification with the state. Indeed, radical ideologies would abolish such longstanding traditions, but both conservatism and liberalism would appear to justify the existence of this veteran institution, so deeply established both in history and the international fabric, which adds another element of balance to the power of the government.

Foreign relations

“…a non-partisan head of state, representing the land and the people in their entirety, inwardly and outwardly.”[66]

Even though Basic Law: The President of the State does not explicitly stipulate so, there is no doubt that one of the president’s most recognizable roles is to represent the State of Israel before the international community. Indeed, the president has powers that relate in one way or another to his involvement in Israel’s foreign relations, but they focus mainly on the ceremonial aspect of receiving the credentials of foreign ambassadors and signing Israeli ambassadors’ letters of credence. Nevertheless, in the earliest proposals for an Israeli constitution, the president’s role was based on his being a representation of the state, both inwardly and outwardly—a characterization that has become uncontroversial and axiomatic[67]. Israelis tend to perceive this authority as primarily symbolic, but history shows that beyond the paltry powers granted to them, Israeli presidents have worked to achieve, and indeed achieved, significant and irreplaceable diplomatic influence.

The institution of the Presidency is sometimes described, inaccurately, as a kind of “complementary institution” within the overall umbrella of the Israeli governing system[68]. This is inaccurate because it would be hard to classify the head of the state, according to the law, as a “complementary institution.” But when it comes to Israel’s foreign relations, it is clear that Israeli presidents have indeed regarded themselves, as state institutions have sometimes regarded them, as complementing the foreign policy of the Israeli executive branch.

The Israeli president’s foreign activities, beyond the symbolic ones, may be divided into two. First, activities consistent with the government’s foreign relations, frequently at the government’s behest and urging, but touching places that government policy cannot reach. The impression is that the president’s greatest capital in this regard is his own individual background, and his own prestige or international ties. There is no president in the history of the State of Israel who met with the president of the United States as frequently as Chaim Weizmann did with Truman. Moreover, it would appear that Chaim Weizmann was the only Israeli public official whose relationship with the leader of the world’s greatest superpower was based on his political power among influential figures in the United States[69].

But Weizmann was not the only president whose past and prestige contributed to his international influence in the service of the state. President Ben-Zvi leveraged his Ottoman background, from his studies in Istanbul (Constantinople at the time), to advance the important relationship with Turkey, which seemed poised to break off relations with Israel[70]. President Shazar brought his cultural and literary experience to bear by running a massive lobbying operation to secure the first Nobel Prize for an Israeli author[71]. President Katzir, who was known and respected in the international scientific community, contributed to developing scientific partnerships around the world and exporting Israeli science to Central America in particular[72], just as President Ben-Zvi had done before him in the African context. President Ezer Weizman’s connections with Egyptian leaders, from his time in the Israeli negotiating team in the peace talks, were also brought to bear during his tenure[73].

The presidents most similar to Chaim Weizmann in their backgrounds and global fame were Herzog and Peres, who both built on this in their work. President Chaim Herzog’s global travels became his trademark and his work sent shockwaves, from his vociferous efforts to secure the abrogation of the U.N. resolution that defined Zionism as racism (efforts that he began during his term as Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations), through to his critical contributions to Israel’s admission to the most highly regarded sporting federations in Europe (as opposed to Oceania), to the important and dramatic leap forward in Israel’s relations with his native Ireland, as well as Japan, Germany, and the United States[74]. In the two latter countries, Herzog was the first Israeli president to conduct an official state visit[75]. President Peres, whose international reputation preceded him, worked together with Prime Minister Netanyahu in lockstep, first and foremost by giving his absolute backing to decisions by the Israeli government, especially in relations with the United States[76].

But as we have seen, this is only one aspect of the president’s representation of the State of Israel to the outside world. This is the aspect that complements the government’s activities; perhaps the more important side, which most fundamentally explains the Presidency’s contributions on this matter, but still—only one aspect. The other side of the coin is those foreign endeavors by Israeli presidents, which have not been common but have nevertheless existed, that have not always fallen in line with the official foreign policy of the Israeli government—especially in the context of policy surrounding the Palestinian issue.

President Chaim Weizmann’s contributions to Israel’s foreign relations were priceless, but his public remarks also embarrassed the government—not symbolic catchphrases, but dramatic diplomatic commitments. One well-known examples is Weizmann’s remarks about the Palestinians’ “right of return,” stipulating exact numbers, of the sort the Israeli government was doing everything in its power not to provide[77]. Like uncle, like nephew: Ezer Weizman also tried, if not enjoyed, to maneuver the Israeli government into negotiations in circumstances and manners that he deemed appropriate, both in his public statements and in his meetings—around the world and at his residence in Israel[78].

As president, Shimon Peres also pushed with all his might for negotiations toward a peace agreement with the Palestinians. Sometimes he did so behind Prime Minister Netanyahu’s back, meeting in secret with senior Palestinian officials, and sometimes he did so in coordination with him, working opposite U.S. President Barack Obama and Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas[79]. Peres, who took credit for inserting the phrase “two states” into Netanyahu’s Bar Ilan Speech[80], always operated in the vague seam zone between the spirit of the government and activities that would put the government on the spot and push it in the direction that he thought best for the country; nevertheless, besides the extremely exceptional incident in which the government forbade him from leaving Israel’s borders for a meeting in Jordan[81], it would seem here too, he proceeded well as a complementary institution.

Here too, we must be wary of idealizing the present state of affairs. It is hard to deny that the flipside—that of presidential activities not at the behest and with the consent of the government—may be jarring at times, despite existing in one form or another all around the world[82]. Presidential freedom of operation comes at a price, and that price is often paid in the context of relations between the branches of government and Israel’s representation around the world. Nevertheless, it is important to emphasize also the benefits and importance of presidential independence in international affairs. First of all, we must note that despite their sometimes conflicting positions, Israeli presidents have always acted faithfully and with decorum when refusing to serve as tools in the hands of foreign leaders against the Israeli government. There are no few examples of cases in which presidents carefully considered their steps in order not to cause the government diplomatic embarrassment, even when this was a matter of honor and deepening important relations[83]. But the most important respect in which the Israeli Presidency delivers unique value in the Israeli system of government is evidenced by the fact that foreign leaders have often turned to the president for help in confirming the importance of requests addressed to them by the Israeli government, because the president is considered a stable and non-partisan figure[84]. The president’s ability to represent Israel on the world stage in an independent yet coordinated manner is therefore an important complement to the government.

It is for good reason that the president’s departure from the country must be accepted by the government[85]. Despite the compelling contributions of an independent Presidency, Israel’s governing institutions must act in coordination—even if on a basic and not necessarily operational level—which both allows them to move and exercise influence on separate axes and to act in synergy.

The president’s operative involvement in core issues

“The president of the state has a separate status from the other branches of government in Israel. In his endeavors, he expresses this spirit of the nation, its core values, the common foundations shared by its various sections, and its formative narrative.”[86]

Many issues were left beyond the remit of the head of the Israeli state when the relevant laws were drafted. Indeed, in some cases, the law leaves openings from which it may be deduced that, at minimum, the president is expected to voice an opinion, whatever it may be; but there are also domains in which the law has nothing to say. This is surprising, because these are precisely the issues that all Israeli presidents have made central to their endeavors in office, and to which they have devoted most of their time and presidential resources. One can argue, with much truth, that these are the fields in which presidents have exercised the greatest—and most needed and important—operative influence. To use a general heading, we can label these issues as the domestic socioeconomic axis.

In the ongoing dialogue between the president and the public, the Presidency’s involvement in internal Israeli issues has become the beating heart of the institution, and this is where it yields its greatest value. Israeli presidents have known this, and so has the legislative branch, which has refrained from imposing additional duties and has been equally careful not to impose further restrictions on the president, giving respect and meaning to his judgment and independence of action.

In what follows, we shall seek to elaborate on some of Israel’s presidents’ public activities over the years and characterize the main avenues of influence of the institution of the Presidency.

Hidden corners

First and foremost, the Israeli Presidency has committed itself to giving a voice to voiceless communities and to directing the spotlight of Israel’s public resources toward the darkest, most hidden corners of the country—each president in his own time. The Presidential Award for Volunteering, founded by President Katzir and embraced by all his successors, is a wonderful example of this: of presidents placing mutual responsibility and the importance of listening to every citizen and community centerstage.

From an ethnic standpoint, from President Chaim Weizmann to President Chaim Herzog, we can see an intense focus on concern for Jewish immigrants from around the Middle East. Although some of President Weizmann’s remarks caused considerable distress to these communities[87], he set the standard for addressing social, ethnic, and class issues, which would be interwoven into the values and deeds of his successors. President Ben-Zvi, who founded the Office of the President’s public inquiries department, often invited representatives of the various immigrant communities and transit camps, especially around the Wadi Salib events, to make their voices heard to him and representatives of the government[88]; President Shazar did the same in hosting Jewish immigrants from North Africa[89]; and Katzir and Herzog followed suit, visiting transit camps and pushing the government to rehabilitate the slums populated mainly by Jews from Middle Eastern backgrounds[90]. President Navon is etched in the public consciousness as reflecting the most intense concern for the poorest communities, especially in the periphery—a top priority for him as he worked to draw it in, lead it forward, and build relations of trust with it—as the head of state[91].

Israeli presidents’ concern for religious and national minorities has also found frequent expression in their efforts to lay the foundations and push for a better connection between the government and these minorities, and better quality support. President Shazar was the first to institutionalize a connection between the Presidency and the Druze, both by appointing an advisor from the community and in his dealings with the executive branch[92]. President Herzog, who made a point of visiting all communities and faith groups in Israel and celebrating their holidays, was a significant force in directing the Interior Ministry’s spotlight toward the plight of Arab villages in general, and of Umm al-Fahm in particular[93]. President Rivlin proceeded in the same spirit, to ameliorate the connection between Arab local authorities in Israel and the government, with an emphasis on the implementation of Resolution 922, concerning government efforts to foster the economic development of Arab society[94].

These actions, much like President Navon’s solidarity visit in Yamit before the evacuation from the Sinai Desert, or President Katsav’s support for the settlers of Gush Katif before they were uprooted from their homes, and much like President Herzog’s public visits to Tekoa and Gush Katif, President Ezer Weizman’s visit to Hebron, and President Reuven Rivlin’s visits to Hebron, Havat Gilad, and Eli—all these were public-political statements and part of the persistent presidential endeavor to bring groups that have suffered harm under the wings of the ultimate symbol of the state. This does not mean that presidents did not oppose the government’s actions: Herzog, Weizman, and Rivlin expressed criticism, from left and right, about the government’s conduct and its implications—but the act, as we have seen, was self-explanatory.

For a counterpoint to these presidents’ actions, we can point to President Navon and President Peres, who refrained from crossing the Green Line—either as a point of principle, or in practice[95]. Here too, the question arises of idealizing the existing situation, coming this time both from the left and the right. Was presidential practice, in the case of Herzog and Rivlin, laudable? Was it most appropriate in the case of Navon and Peres? Not only that, but President Navon himself explained his actions as coming from a desire not to interfere in an explosive party-political issue, but acted in a completely opposite manner, as we have seen above, in the case of Sabra and Shatila. It would seem, therefore, that here too, the president’s singular freedom of operation comes at a cost that must be considered in the broader context of the value that the institution of the Presidency offers in its present configuration.

We mention these activities not only to praise the kindheartedness of Israel’s presidents, but mainly to demonstrate the immense influence that presidents exercise once they resolve to throw their weight behind a particular challenge that they believe the other branches of government have overlooked. Other examples may be found in the commitment of all presidents to people with disabilities, which have pushed the government and the public into action. President Shazar mobilized philanthropists and the government to build a medical educational institution to train caregivers and teachers in facilities for children with mental disabilities[96], and this institution was particularly close to his heart because his daughter, Roda, suffered from similar difficulties. President Ezer Weizman literally ordered Yuval Wagner to found the Access Israel NGO.

As a side point, although one cannot describe the Israeli family of grief—those who have lost loved ones in battle or terror attacks—as having been ignored by state institutions, successive presidents’ role in embracing bereaved families has always been highly significant[97]. President Ezer Weizman, in the military context, and President Rivlin, in the context of terror attacks, institutionalized this practice, but the same spirit has animated the actions of all presidents in Israeli history.

Successive presidents’ efforts to work with population groups that are not at the center of national influence have been reflected, among other things, in the lack of appreciation for the Presidency on the part of other communities or sections of the public. Unlike some heads of state around the world, and in accordance with the conflictual nature and diverse identities of Israeli society, Israeli presidents, as a rule, have neither aspired nor endeavored to create an institution accepted by all at any given moment, but rather to choose the neediest groups and to focus on them. It is no coincidence that the Israeli parliament, unlike its counterparts around the world, chose not to define the Presidency as representing the unity of the nation[98]. Israeli presidents have always endeavored to connect various population groups to the state, especially those that felt unseen by the state and its institutions at the time. This has happened with economically, socially, or geographically underprivileged groups; with communities uprooted from their homes because of government decisions; and with groups that have been excluded in one way or another, or have suffered harm at the hands of other groups.

Furthermore, it is doubtful whether any Israeli president would say so aloud, but their actions indicate that contrary to the prevailing impression, the institution of the Israeli Presidency has almost never addressed national unity in the sense of connecting different communities and population groups to each other. The national unity toward which Israel’s presidents have worked has been based, inter alia, on the hyperpartisanship that has undermined citizens’ common identification with the state; their work has therefore been based on connecting all parts of Israeli society to the state, and not necessarily to each other. That is why they have given targeted attention to each specific community—as may be seen, for example, from the evenings that President Ben-Zvi hosted for different Jewish communities every Rosh Chodesh[99] —and have not necessarily called for partnerships. In this sense, President Rivlin invented a whole new domain for the Presidency by putting into practice his operative conception of national partnership, both by integrating all groups into the economy and the public sphere and by connecting groups to each other, in order to facilitate, in his contention, a shared Israeli existence[100]. For this reason, the criticism of Rivlin’s vision, better known as the “Tribes Speech[101],” was based, among other things, on the challenge of partnership on the level of identity, which he argued that the Israel’s demography forces it to confront, in contrast to efforts to connect groups to the state, along separate, parallel axes, which all Israeli presidents before him pursued[102].

The character of the state

Another avenue in which the Israeli Presidency works and influences Israel’s society and state, beyond the president’s formal authorities but hugely consequentially, is the core question of the State of Israel’s character, including its character as a Jewish and democratic state. Indeed, most of Israel’s presidents have seen both of these core components as intertwined, or as President Rivlin put it, spoken “in a single word[103]”; nevertheless, their efforts in this regard have often highlighted or extolled one of these two axes—and not by chance.

The argument about the role of the president—as the president of the State of Israel, the president of the Jewish People, or both together—has dogged this institution since its earliest days. Some have claimed that the president himself must be a Jew; others have resisted this. Some have wanted the word “nation” to appear in the basic law defining the role of the president; others have resisted this, understanding that this would hint that the president belonged to Israel’s Jewish majority more than to its minorities. The list goes on[104]. Either way, although they are not formally defined as the presidents of the Jewish People, Israel’s presidents are clearly and explicitly the most faithful representatives of the Jewishness of the state; and, in their deeds, they highlight time and again the democratic principles that sometimes need illuminating and reminding.

Israel’s presidents have represented the Jewish aspect of the State of Israel’s character in several areas of activity, driving others to action. First, in the context of Diaspora Jewry, mobilizing the state to support the resolution of challenges it faces. President Ben-Zvi worked to establish a deep connection with Ethiopian Jewry and prepare it for aliyah[105]; President Herzog took action in Argentina for the sake of Syrian Jewry[106]. Generally speaking, whenever Israeli presidents are abroad in their capacity of “representing Israel to the world,” they make a point of meeting Diaspora Jewish communities and renewing and reaffirming their connection with them, whether this would find expression in aliyah, as President Ezer Weizman emphasized, or in boosting a sense of peoplehood and family, as President Rivlin phrased it. Successive presidents’ efforts to mobilize the international community for war on antisemitism—as Presidents Ben-Zvi, Herzog, and Rivlin did so forcefully—may also be seen as part of their activities in the context of the core elements of the Jewishness of the State of Israel they represent.

Another field in which Israeli presidents have engaged and influenced the State of Israel’s Jewishness relate to its history, religion, and culture. Here too, presidential activities were not relegated only to symbolic projects, such as the presidential Bible study forum, but have influenced Israeli policy, both in theory and in practice. These activities may be divided into two parts. First, pushing the authorities to allocate significant resources to Jewish spiritual and intellectual pursuits , especially in the first few decades of Israel’s independence. Second, public remarks and activities, including controversial ones, that involved ideological statements which influenced public debate and, in turn, government action concerning the Jewish character of the state.

President Ben-Zvi’s involvement on the subjects of Shabbat in the Israeli public sphere, the Law of Return, and the question of “who is a Jew?” caused ripples and provoked intense criticism, as we have seen. President Shazar was also criticized for his intervention in the issue of “who is a Jew?” and for his intimate relationship, as a Chabad disciple before his rabbi, with the Lubavitcher Rebbe, which the Israeli public saw as demeaning the dignity of the Presidency[107]. President Katzir laid the foundations for relations, unprecedented in their degree of institutionalization, with different Jewish denominations, when during a visit to New York, he visited both the Jewish Theological Seminary of the Conservative movement and the Orthodox-affiliated Yeshiva University[108]. President Rivlin also highlighted, on more than one occasion, the supreme importance of familial relations within the Jewish world, for all its diversity and manifold institutions, and this emphasis provoked criticism against him[109].

One tantalizing anecdote that reflects how presidents have dealt with the. Jewish aspects of the institution of the Presidency concerns the President’s Residence Synagogue. When the current President’s Residence was built, in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Komemiyut, it contained a synagogue, in the spirit of the incumbent president, Shazar. On various pretexts, including that the president should pray with the general public[110], two presidents—the secular-Ashkenazi Katzir and the traditionalist-Sephardi Navon—decided to remove the synagogue from the President’s Residence[111]. In this, Katzir and Navon were making a statement in favor of a separation, if only a symbolic one, between religious institutions and the institutions of the state[112].

As for the State of Israel’s democratic foundations, the situation is somewhat more subtle, because it is hard to say what can be assigned to these foundations and what pertains to other domains we have mentioned. Nevertheless, we may define President Ben-Zvi’s opposition to the military administration over the country’s Arabs or to raising the electoral threshold, as we have seen, as related to what he saw as Israel’s democratic identity. His conversations with the prime minister about looting by IDF soldiers, and President Shazar’s involvement in addressing the moral shortcomings of IDF soldiers in the territories, should probably also be understood in the same context. Although these issues are not necessarily connected to democracy in the narrowest sense, or indeed to the state’s Jewishness, they are certainly related to the state’s character. President Chaim Herzog made a point of attending the annual memorial for the murder of Emil Grunzweig and to attend the election conventions of all parties in Israel—including the communists but excluding Kach[113]. As a side note, there is no doubt that it was President Chain Herzog who first confronted an unprecedented democratic crisis, of the sort that has since reared its head: polarization between two partisan blocs of almost perfectly equal size. Doing so, to his mind, demanded involvement in politics, almost to the point of partisan politics, both in the ways we have discussed—assigning the task of forming a government, pursuing unity governments, and pushing for changes to the electoral system (which is indeed considered one of the factors that influenced the switch to direct elections for the premiership)—and by convening the young generation of all shades of party politics in Israel[114].

An operational Presidency

The Israeli Presidency is, therefore, a political institution and there is nothing wrong with that, because that is its purpose. The president’s public-political involvement is reflected in his symbolic statements, such as President Ben-Zvi’s statements about education or the conscription of women, or President Navon’s campaign for an investigation into the events of Sabra and Shatila—actions that today would probably lead to accusations of being “unpresidential”; sometimes it is reflected in interventions that are successful because they are not symbolic but practical, shifting institutions and the thinking and resources of the operational branches of the Israeli state.

For example, scientist-presidents Chaim Weizmann and Ephraim Katzir pushed with all their might for the senior officials of the Finance Ministry, and for the minister himself, to invest significant budgets to foster Israeli science[115]. President Shazar, by the same token, pushed for support for culture, literature, and poetry, leading to the establishment of the Amos Foundation, which kept running for decades thereafter[116]. It was Shazar who blazed a trail for the exploitation of the symbolic capital of the Presidency to convene a diverse and effective series of roundtables that the state had not had the sense to convene by itself. He did so in the context of the campaign against traffic accidents, bringing together all the governmental and public bodies involved in the subject to coordinate a mechanism that would solve the problem[117]. President Chaim Herzog was also called upon to use this symbolic capital when, as president, he headed the public commission to rehabilitate the economy, carefully ensuring representation for all classes and sections of the population[118].

This presidential modus operandi was refined and reached new heights under President Rivlin, who founded the “Israeli Hope” umbrella initiative for activities at the President’s Residence, which put into practice his vision and that of his predecessors for a partnership spanning Israel’s “tribes”—in his definition. This umbrella initiative brought to the table, for the first time, influential actors and policymakers to tackle socioeconomic challenges raised by Israel’s shifting demographics. One might even argue that the ethical and practical anchors of President Rivlin’s work were laid by President Ben-Zvi, when in an unprecedented step, he mobilized the private sector to address the challenges of the day, saying that “the fusing of the tribes must begin here, with the sector of private enterprise, as in the sector of public enterprise[119].”

After all this, it would be easy to argue presidential activities in the internal Israeli domain have been the most significant and efficacious means of influence for the Israeli Presidency. Moreover, despite the tremendous international importance of the president, as we have noted, there is no doubt that it is the Presidency’s domestic endeavors that most highlight the institution’s importance and provide the best explanation for the lack of support among lawmakers for abolishing this institution.


“This lofty position, despite being deliberately emptied of content, or perhaps precisely for this reason, demands from its bearers great skill in personal transcendence and elevation, raising together with them the authoritative power of this office the essential value of which is checked and tested in times of crisis[120].”

“It is good that there is someone in this realm who dreams… It is good that there is someone in this state who goes to sleep with its citizens at night and wakes up with them in the morning[121].”

This article set out to describe and sketch the contours of the institution of the Israeli Presidency, focusing on two main issues related to both theory and practice: first, the fact that the Israeli Presidency is inherently political; second, the fact that the importance of this institution must be judged by the extent not of its powers, but of its influence.

In virtue of its public activities, the institution of the Israeli Presidency has always been political. It is impossible to exercise an influence in areas of public interest and maintain an absolute consensus, and even the most popular presidents in Israeli history came under barrages of criticism, which they welcomed with love and respect, understanding the influence of the institution they headed.

This is not only an existing reality that must be accepted for want of a better option; it is a proper and desirable state of affairs, deliberately designed as part of the architecture of the Israeli governing system. It is good for the state to be headed by a political figure who does not belong to the executive branch: an elected, non-partisan, public-political figure who provides a different sort of stability from the parliament and the government and addresses the nation’s difficulties, grievances, and dreams from another perspective. Neither replacing nor undermining other institutions, but a deliberate part of the fabric of the Israeli state.

The whole Earth is not filled with presidential glory; not even close. Moreover, as noted at the outset of this article, we must not confuse theory with practice, and the important influence of the institution of the Presidency must not blind us to the inherent challenges in its singular freedom of operation as an institution of government. As we have seen on several occasions, the costs of the flexibility awarded to the president have arisen throughout the history of the institution. The existence of a branch of the Israeli governing system that is not restricted to a domain of approved activity but may rather act wherever it has not been expressly forbidden from operating poses certain dangers. Nevertheless, set against these dangers are deliberate checks and balances. First of all is the minimal power of the Presidency and the fact that it cannot cause any significant harm to Israel’s citizens in the context of its enumerated powers. Second, there are political and public norms in Israel, certainly in the context of the institution that heads the state; these norms are binding on the president and give us cause to think that despite the lack of legal boundaries, the boundaries of convention will suffice. This matter was addressed in the Bank Mizrahi ruling, in which Justice Bach spelled out his argument about norms of this sort:

The common but erroneous claim that the president must somehow be apolitical is rooted in another mistaken conception: a view of the Israeli Presidency through the functionalist prism of legal powers. There is a good reason why most of the public inquiries fielded to the Office of the President have nothing to do with the president at all, but with the state and its institutions. In its conduct, the Israeli public has pointed to the trust, stability, and prestige that the Presidency has acquired over the years. The influence of the Presidency, or rather the essence of the Presidency, exists for the most part beyond the confines defined by law.

The concern that has been expressed reminds me of the following questions that I have asked myself on more than one occasion: What would happen, if, when the commander of the Independence Day ceremony requests the permission of the Speaker of the Knesset to begin the ceremony, the request would be denied by the Speaker?! What would happen if the President, or the Prime Minister, or the relevant minister would refuse to sign a law enacted by the Knesset? And what if the President refuses to sign the appointment of a judge who has been selected by the Judicial Appointments Committee, when there is no defect in the appointment? The simple answer to questions such as these is that there are certain things that we may assume will simply never happen in a proper democratic regime. And if, heaven forbid, such unreasonable events were to occur, then a democratic regime will find judicial or other governmental solutions[122].

Above all this, however, it seems that the most compelling reason for the existence of the institution of the Israeli Presidency, despite its drawbacks, is its much-needed influence within—and with—all the other institutions of government in Israel, as we have seen throughout. The president brings value precisely where his unique leadership—in his public-political stability, in his personality, and in the story he brings with him to an office to which he is elected on the basis of his past, not a forward-looking manifesto—is needed at that point in time. This is also why there is great value to the rich prior experience, both political and operational, of the president. Israel’s presidents have known this, and this is why in the large majority of cases, they have not asked for more powers. The other branches of government, especially the legislature, have chosen not to restrict the president’s powers, understanding that only thus can the institution of the Presidency play its vital role in the Israeli government system; all the more so, they have never even contemplated abolishing the institution in its entirety.

The Israeli Presidency’s symbolic and substantive powers are not worthless, of course, but judging the institution through this prism would fail to capture its true value and importance; by all accounts, the same test would do an injustice to counterpart institutions around the world. The Presidency of the State of Israel was deliberately created as a kind of compass, sometimes working together with the other branches of government and sometimes alongside them. That is its role; that is what makes it unique; that is the core of its indispensable importance to the system of government. The president is the state itself, as Justice Cohn wrote, but because of widespread identification with him, but precisely because the paucity of his powers affords him flexibility of thought and vision, and in the Israeli case specifically, also proximity to the general public, its challenges and opportunities, in a way that yields profound and genuine benefit for society and for the state.

It is said that President Yitzhak Ben-Zvi was walking through the streets of Jerusalem one day, when suddenly a young man came his way—and failed to recognize him. The young man, lost in Jerusalem’s winding streets, turned to the elderly gentleman, who looked like an ordinary passerby, and asked him for directions. President Ben-Zvi gave him a detailed and genial reply and then continued on his way.

The story continues, so it is told, with the question that Ben-Zvi was then asked by his military attaché: was that not an affront to the dignity of your office? Was there no one else who could have given this passerby directions around Israel’s capital? “But I am the president,” replied President Ben-Zvi. “It’s my role to show the people the way.”

[1] Yinon Guttel-Klein, a doctoral student at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, is the director of the Content Department at the Office of the President.
[2] Yitzhak Navon, All the Way (Jerusalem: Keter, 2015), 318 [Hebrew].
[3] Yemima Rosenthal and Chagai Tzoref, Yitzhak Ben-Zvi: The Second President—Selected Documents from His Life (Jerusalem: Israel State Archives, 1998), 493 [Hebrew].
[4] Chaim Herzog, Living History: A Memoir (New York: Pantheon Books, 1996), 247.
[5] David Remez, Government Protocols, February 2, 1949.
[6] Michael Eitan, Protocol of the Constitution, Law, and Justice Committee, November 9, 2003. No response was recorded to MK Eitan’s question.
[7] Michel Corday, L’Envers de la guerre, V.2, Paris, 1932, p. 249
[8] See for example, “An office that has become redundant,” Haaretz, November 26, 1992 [Hebrew]; Amit Segal, “Netanyahu proposes abolishing the institution of the Presidency,” Channel 12 News, May 4, 2014 [Hebrew]; John Harris, “‘Essentially, the monarchy is corrupt’ – will republicanism survive Harry and Meghan?”, May 8, 2018.
[9] Scott Mainwaring, “Presidentialism, Multiparty Systems, and Democracy: The Difficult Equation”, Kellogg Institute, The Helen Kellogg Institute for International Studies, Working Paper 144, 1990; Benjamin Schvarcz, Policy Paper on the Presidency in Israel (unpublished) [Hebrew]. I thank Dr. Schvarcz from the bottom of my heart for his push, encouragement, and intellectual contributions, which have led to the writing of this article.
[10] Including, for example: Ami Gluska, The First President, Chaim Weizmann, and the Establishment of the Institution of the Presidency in the State of Israel (unpublished) [Hebrew]; Schvarcz, Policy Paper on the Presidency in Israel [Hebrew]; Moshe Landau, Basic Law: The President of the State (Jerusalem: Nevo, 1994) [Hebrew]; Dana Blander, “The Israeli Presidency: Unnecessary Institution or Vital Symbol?”, Israel Democracy Institute, March 2, 2014; Dana Blander, “Outlines of the Institution of the Presidency,” Israel Democracy Institute, May 5, 2021 [Hebrew]; Report of the Public Commission to Examine Personal Appointments at the Office of the President, May 2018 [Hebrew]; Amnon Rubinstein, The Constitutional Law of the State of Israel (Shocken: Tel Aviv, 1974) [Hebrew].
[11] Walter Bagehot, The English Constitution, (Oxford: Oxford University, 2001 [1897]).
[12] Knesset Protocol, October 4, 1951.
[13] Ami Gluska, The First President, Chaim Weizmann [Hebrew]; Meir Chazan, “‘A Statesman in the Winter’: The First President,” in Uri Cohen and Meir Chazan (eds.), Weizmann: Zionist Leader (Jerusalem: Shazar Center, 2016), 527-573.
[14] Report of the Public Commission, 25 [Hebrew].
[15] One interesting point of comparison may be found with another branch of government—the government itself, for which matters have been anchored in law. See HCJ 11163/03, The High Follow-up Committee for Arab Citizens of Israel v. Prime Minister of Israel (February 27, 2006), para. 6 of Justice Cheshin’s ruling: “Since the basic principles of the system of government that prevails in Israel—which are the principle of the rule of law and the principle of administrative legality—each prevent the government from doing what it has not been authorized to do in statute, and in order not to leave the government without the power to act where it needs to act, the Knesset enacted s. 32 of the Basic Law: the Government, 5761-2001, which is the provision that authorizes the government to act in a ‘residual’ capacity, i.e., even without express and specific authority in statute.”
[16] HCJ 962/07, Liran v. Attorney-General (April 1, 2007), para. 7 of Justice Procaccia’s ruling.
[17] Zalman Shazar, in Raphael Bashan, “Interview of the Week with President Zalman Shazar,” Maariv, March 29, 1968 [Hebrew].
[18] HCJ 2592/20, Movement for Quality Government v. Attorney-General (May 6, 2020).
[19] Rosenthal and Tzoref, Yitzhak Ben-Zvi: The Second President, 459, 511 [Hebrew].
[20] Yemima Rosenthal and Chagai Tzoref (eds.), Zalman Shazar: The Third President—Selected Documents from His Life (Jerusalem: Israel State Archives, 1998), 484-88 [Hebrew].
[21] Ephraim Katzir, A Life’s Tale (Jerusalem: Carmel, 2009), 231-232 [Hebrew].
[22] Knesset Protocol, March 26, 1951.
[23] Yemima Rosenthal et al., Chaim Herzog: The Sixth President—Selected Documents from His Life (Jerusalem: Israel State Archives, 2008), 522 [Hebrew].
[24] Ibid, 415-16 [Hebrew].
[25] Ibid, 524-526.
[26] Yishai Porat and Itamar Eichner, “Rivlin Reveals: I Proposed an Egalitarian Government, Fixing Leave of Absence Law,” ynet, September 25, 2019 [Hebrew]; Jonathan Lis, “Rivlin’s Proposal to Netanyahu and Gantz: Two Prime Ministers Will Serve Simultaneously,” Haaretz, September 25, 2019 [Hebrew]; Yair Sheleg, “President’s Framework is Best Solution at the Moment,” Makor Rishon, October 6, 2019 [Hebrew]; Tal Shalev: “Rivlin: Despite Criticism, Unity Framework I Proposed is Still on the Table,” Walla, March 11, 2020 [Hebrew].
[27] Jonathan Lis, “Israel Election Results: President Rivlin Tasks Netanyahu With Trying to Form Government,” Haaretz, April 6, 2021.
[28] Knesset Protocol, October 3, 1951.
[29] Tal Shalev, “‘Promoting Transparency’: President’s Consultations with Factions will be Broadcast Live,” Walla, April 10, 2019 [Hebrew].
[30] Jonathan Lis, “Rivlin Meets Gantz and Netanyahu; President Will Assign Mandate Tomorrow to Blue & White Chairman,” Haaretz, March 15, 2019 [Hebrew].
[31] Vera Weizmann, The Impossible Takes Longer: The Memoirs of Vera Weizmann, Wife of Israel’s First President (New York, Harper & Row, 1967), 242.
[32] Rosenthal et al., Chaim Herzog: The Sixth President, 452-455 [Hebrew]; also on the basis of background conversations with Ami Gluska, a former advisor to President Herzog.
[33] Based on background conversations and interviews that I have conducted over the past seven years with former officials at the Office of the President (from the Shazar Presidency to the Rivlin Presidency).
[34] Protocol of the Constitution, Law, and Justice Committee, November 23, 2003.
[35] Zehava Galon, “Proposed Basic Law: The President of the State (Amendment: Consultation with the Court before Pardoning Offenders),” May 5, 2003 [Hebrew].
[36] FH 13/60, Attorney-General v. Aharon Matana, IsrSC 16(1), 430, 465.
[37] Protocol of the Constitution, Law, and Justice Committee, November 23, 2003.
[38] HCJ 5699/07, Anon. (A.) v. Attorney-General, paragraph 1 of Justice Procaccia’s ruling. 
[39] Protocol of the Constitution, Law, and Justice Committee, November 9, 2003.
[40] Ibid.
[41] Yasser Okbi and Arik Bender, “President Rivlin: ‘If I Sign the Nation-State Law, I’ll Do It in Arabic,” Maariv, July 30, 2018 [Hebrew].
[42] Maartje De Visser, Constitutional Review in Europe: A Comparative Analysis, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2013, p. 40; Gerhard Robbers, Constitutional Law in Germany, Kluwer Law International B.V., 2017, p. 512; Juliane Kokott and Martin Kaspar, “Ensuring Constitutional Efficacy”; Michel Rosenfeld and András Sajó (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Comparative Constitutional Law, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012, 804; Schvarcz, Policy Paper on the Presidency in Israel, 31, 45 [Hebrew].
[43] Schvarcz, ibid, 18-20 [Hebrew].
[44] Chazan, “Statesman in Winter” [Hebrew]. Weizmann is notably said to have stated that the only place he was allowed to poke his nose was a handkerchief.
[45] Menachem Begin, Fourth Session of the Constituent Assembly, February 16, 1949 [Hebrew].
[46] Government Protocols, December 3, 1951. 
[47] Katzir, A Life’s Tale (Jerusalem: Carmel 2009), 216.
[48] Report of the Public Commission, p. 4 [Hebrew].
[49] To quote Michael Eitan MK: “Anything that has to do with the governance of the polis is political… a non-political role, for example, is the conductor of the Philharmonic Orchestra.” Protocol of the Constitution, Law, and Justice Committee (November 9, 2003).
[50] Protocol of the Constitution, Law, and Justice Committee, November 9, 2003; May 4, 1964.
[51] Michael Tuchfeld, “Chronicle of Hostility: The Battle Between Presidents and Prime Ministers in Israel,” Makor Rishon, January 17, 2018 [Hebrew].
[52] Rosenthal and Tzoref, Zalman Shazar: The Third President, 584-583 [Hebrew].
[53] Katzir, A Life’s Tale, 205-206 [Hebrew].
[54] Rosenthal and Tzoref, Yitzhak Ben-Zvi: The Second President, 441-443 [Hebrew].
[55] Rosenthal and Tzoref, Zalman Shazar: The Third President, 569-570 [Hebrew].
[56] Ibid, 583 [Hebrew]. 
[57] Ibid, 206 [Hebrew]. 
[58] Navon, All the Way, 334-349 [Hebrew]; Katzir, A Life’s Tale, 267-268 [Hebrew].
[59] Navon, All the Way, 369 [Hebrew]. 
[60] For two conflicting narratives about these remarks, see: Yair Kotler, The Blurter: Ezer Weizman as President (Tel Aviv: Y. Golan, 2000) [Hebrew]; Ezer Weizman, Over and Out (Tel Aviv: Miskal, 2002) [Hebrew].
[61] Rosenthal et al., Chaim Herzog: The Sixth President, 498 [Hebrew].
[62] Rosenthal et al., Chaim Herzog: The Sixth President, 469 [Hebrew]; Nina Fox and Tova Zimuki, “Rivlin: Not Every Criticism of the Government and Judicial System is Incitement,” ynet, October 10, 2020 [Hebrew].
שם, עמ’ 469; נינה פוקס וטובה צימוקי, “ריבלין: “לא כל ביקורת על הממשלה ומערכת המשפט היא הסתה””, Ynet, 28.10.20.
[63] Rosenthal et al., Chaim Herzog: The Sixth President, 522-523 [Hebrew]. 
[64] Avi Gil, Shimon Peres: An Insider’s Account of the Man and the Struggle for a New Middle East Avi Gil, trans. Eylon Levy (London: I.B. Tauris, 2019), 222. 
[65] Arik Bender, “Rivlin Sends Unusual Letter to Knesset: ‘Nation-State Law May Harm Jewish People,” Maariv, July 10, 2017 [Hebrew].
[66] Leo Kohn, Proposed Constitution, February 1949.
[67] Ami Gluska, The First President, Chaim Weizmann [Hebrew].
[68] See “The Israeli Presidency,” website of the Office of the President.
[69] Chazan, “Statesman in Winter” [Hebrew].
[70] Rosenthal and Tzoref, Yitzhak Ben-Zvi: The Second President, 470 [Hebrew]. 
[71] Rosenthal and Tzoref, Zalman Shazar: The Third President, 490 [Hebrew].
[72] Navon, All the Way, 286-301 [Hebrew]. 
[73] Weizman, Over and Out, 199-209 [Hebrew]. 
[74] Rosenthal and Tzoref, Chaim Herzog: The Sixth President, 431-433 [Hebrew].
[75] It is interesting to note that besides the obvious and important place of the United States in successive Israeli presidents’ international relations, it is Germany that takes the top position of honor, certainly in the European context. Israeli presidents’ relations with German leaders—especially those of Herzog, Weizman, and Rivlin—are often described in their remarks, and in those of their staff, as especially warm and important.
[76] Based on background conversations and interviews with former officials at the Office of the President. 
[77] Chazan, “Statesman in Winter” [Hebrew].
[78] Weizman, Over and Out, esp. 51-66 [Hebrew].
[79] Avi Gil, The Peres Formula (Tel Aviv: Kinneret Zemora Bitan, 2018), 292-321) [Hebrew]; Shimon Hefetz, The Secrets Within (Tel Aviv: Contento, 2017), 287 [Hebrew].
[80] Gil, The Peres Formula, 290 [Hebrew]. 
[81] Hefetz, The Secrets Within, 287-288 [Hebrew].
[82] “Signor Gronchi Due in London Next Week,” The Times, May 10, 1958, p. 5.
[83] Katzir, A Life’s Tale, 257 [Hebrew]; also on the basis of background discussions and interviews with other former officials at the office of the President.
[84] Based on background conversations and interviews with former officials at the Office of the President.
[85] Basic Law: The President of the State, paragraph 18; Protocol of the Knesset Constitution, Law, and Justice Committee, November 9, 2003. 
[86] HCJ 10021/06 Nir Zohar v. Minister of Justice (ruling from December 23, 2008), paragraph 10 of Justice Edmond Levy’s ruling.
[87] Chazan, “Statesman in Winter” [Hebrew].
[88] Rosenthal and Tzoref, Yitzhak Ben-Zvi: The Second President, 494-496 [Hebrew].
[89] Rosenthal and Tzoref, Zalman Shazar: The Third President, 470 [Hebrew].
[90] Rosenthal et al., Chaim Herzog: The Sixth President, 388-392 [Hebrew].
[91] Navon, All the Way, 321-333 [Hebrew].
[92] Rosenthal and Tzoref, Yitzhak Ben-Zvi: The Second President, 440-444 [Hebrew].
[93] Rosenthal et al., Chaim Herzog: The Sixth President, 441-444 [Hebrew].
[94] Document on Systemwide Program for the Economic Development of Arab Society (President, in cooperation with the minister of finance, minister of social equality, and representatives of government ministries in a joint meeting with heads of Arab local authorities), February 24, 2016 [Hebrew].
[95] Navon, All the Way, 337 [Hebrew]; Rosenthal et al., Chaim Herzog: The Sixth President, 391 [Hebrew]; also on the basis of background conversations and interviews with former officials at the Office of the President.
[96] Rosenthal and Tzoref, Zalman Shazar: The Third President, 525 [Hebrew].
[97] Yinon Guttel-Klein, “The father figure in the Israeli nation-state: the president and the Memorial Day ceremony,” Behevrat Haadam, May 6, 2020 [Hebrew].
[98] Protocol of the Constitution, Law, and Justice Committee, May 4, 1964.
[99] Rosenthal and Tzoref, Yitzhak Ben-Zvi: The Second President, 422 [Hebrew].
[100] See
[101] See
[102] Schvarcz, Policy Paper on the Presidency in Israel, 70-71 [Hebrew]; Avrum Tomer, “No Tribes, No Such Thing,” HaShiloah 3 (2017), 65-85 [Hebrew].
[103] For example: Reuven (Ruvi) Rivlin, “The President’s Speech that Everyone Must Read,” Israel Democracy Institute, October 23, 2017 [Hebrew].
[104] Schvarcz, Policy Paper on the Presidency in Israel [Hebrew]. 
[105] Rosenthal and Tzoref, Yitzhak Ben-Zvi: The Second President, 494 [Hebrew].
[106] Rosenthal et al., Chaim Herzog: The Sixth President, 508 [Hebrew].
[107] Rosenthal and Tzoref, Zalman Shazar: The Third President, 500 [Hebrew].
[108] Katzir, A Life’s Tale, 250 [Hebrew].
[109] “Destruction of Jerusalem: Rivlin Hosts Reform Rabbi and Conservative Female Rabbi at the President’s Residence,” Srugim, May 23, 2015 [Hebrew]. 
[110] Katzir claimed later that this was only an excuse for removing the synagogue from the President’s Residence. See Katzir, A Life’s Tale, 204 [Hebrew].
[111] Katzir, A Life’s Tale, 203-204; Michael Yakubson, “Five Years in the Building He Hated Most: Yitzhak Navon’s Battle with the President’s Residence,” ynet, November 8, 2015 [Hebrew].
[112] Moshe Katsav later restored the synagogue to the President’s Residence, and it still serves a congregation of local residents. 
[113] Rosenthal et al., Chaim Herzog: The Sixth President, 442 [Hebrew].
[114] Ibid 391 [Hebrew].
[115] Chazan, “Statesman in Winter” [Hebrew]; Katzir, A Life’s Tale, 210 [Hebrew].
[116] Rosenthal and Tzoref, Zalman Shazar: The Third President, 489-490 [Hebrew].
[117] Ibid, 544 [Hebrew].
[118] Rosenthal et al., Chaim Herzog: The Sixth President, 418 [Hebrew].
[119] Rosenthal and Tzoref, Yitzhak Ben-Zvi: The Second President, 476-478 [Hebrew].
[120] Editorial, “With the Election of the President,” Herut, December 12, 1952, p. 3 [Hebrew]. 
[121] Protocol of the Constitution, Law, and Justice Committee, November 9, 2003. 
[122] CA 6821/93 United Mizrahi Bank v. Migdal Cooperative Village 49(4) IsrSC 221, 583.