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Will Israel's presidential election bring an unexpected result?

- June 9, 2014

Dan Shechtman, a Nobel laureate in chemistry and Israeli presidential candidate, speaks with the media on Sunday in Jerusalem. (Gali Tibbon/AFP)
Joshua Tucker: As part of our continuing series of election reports, the following is a pre-election report from Sefi Keller, a graduate student in political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, on the Israeli presidential election.
In the past few months, the No. 1 political story in Israel has been the upcoming election for the presidency of Israel, which is scheduled for Tuesday.
The presidency in Israel, as it is with many other parliamentary systems, is mostly a symbolic institution, sharing many of the characteristics of the European constitutional monarchies.  As is the case with symbolic institutions, many Israelis question the necessity of the presidency that cost as much as 62 million Israeli new shekels in 2012.
Historically, many claim the presidency was established by Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, as a way to quietly push Chaim Weizmann, a prominent Zionist leader, out of the political system. Weizmann, disappointed about the lack of authority imbued in the presidency, is famous for saying that “the only place I’m allowed to stick my nose into is my handkerchief.”
The president’s functions are set in a basic  law (laws that are intended to be gathered one day into a full constitution) from 1964, which states that the president will be elected in a confidential vote among Israel’s 120 members of Knesset. The president is then elected to a seven-year term, limited to one term only.  Besides his or her ceremonial roles, such as signing legislation or accepting foreign diplomat’s letter of credence, the main functions of the Israeli president are granting pardons and appointing an MK to form a government.
Granting pardons may sound technical enough, but Israel’s turbulent security situation makes the president deal with some controversial pardon cases.  The famous of which are the pre-trial pardons given to Shin Bet senior officials after the Kav 300 affair by President Chaim Hertzog, and the pardons that weren’t given to the Jewish Underground convicts by the same president.  Apart from those special occasions, the presidential pardons are the legal tool that is used by the government to release Palestinian prisoners in a prisoner exchange deal. This specific function is more relevant than ever these days, as a bill proposed by the Israeli right party “The Jewish Home” aims to prevent the president from granting pardons to political prisoners. The bill was initiated as a response to the release of Palestinian prisoners that was a condition to the last round of peace talks between Israeli and Palestinian leaders.
The president’s role to appoint an MK to form a newly elected government might also sound a bit technical, seeing as the law requires the president to consult with all the political parties before appointing the MK with the best chances of forming the government. Nevertheless, the lack of a substantial gap between the right bloc and the left bloc in Israel’s politics gives the appointment function a little bit more gravity. For example, after the the 2009 general elections concluded, all eyes turned to President Shimon Peres. In that election, “Kadima” (Peres’ former party) received 28 seats in the Knesset while the “Likud” party led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netnayahu (who had beaten Peres in the very close and emotional elections back in 1996) received only 27 seats. However the right bloc as a whole received 65 seats in the Knesset, as oppose to only 44 seats received by the left bloc. Peres eventually appointed Netnayahu, who went on to successfully form a long-lasting government, but it wouldn’t have been outrageous of him to have acted otherwise and appointed the chairwoman of the largest party in the Knesset: MK Tzipi Livni. Needless to say, the appointment of Livni wouldn’t necessarily have changed the course of Israeli politics, seeing as her chances to form a government weren’t ideal at the time, but it might have.
There is currently a bill proposed by the Israeli center party “Yesh Atid” to require the president to appoint the chairman of the largest party in the Knesset to form the government. The bill was a main issue in “Yesh Atid” platform to reform the system of government in Israel in a way that would bring more stability into the political system.
The upcoming presidential elections have already set an Israeli record for the largest number of candidates. No fewer than six have presented their candidacy and come up with with the required signatures of at least 10 MKs. Some explain the large number of candidates by referring to the successful term president Peres had in office.  Peres’s high approval ratings are even more evident in light of the troubled term of his predecessor, Moshe Katsav, who was convicted of rape and sentenced to seven years in prison.
Among the candidates are MK Reuven (Rubi) Rivlin, former speaker of the Knesset and member of the Likud ruling party; MK Binyamin (Fuad) Ben-Eliezer, former minister of defense and member of the Labor opposition party; MK Meir Sheetrit, former minister of interior and member of Ha’Tnuah coalition party; former MK Dalia Itzik, former speaker of the Knesset and member of the Kadima party; Professor Dan Shechtman, a Nobel laureate in chemistry; and former Supreme Court Justice Dalia Dorner.
Eight out of the nine previous Israeli president have been politicians, a perhaps troubling statistic for the two non-politician candidates (Shechtman and Dorner). Although polls show strong support for Shechtman among the general public, second only to Rivlin, his chances with the MKs looks dim.
MKs’ tendency to choose the president from among themselves is easy to understand. Electing an MK president can either be a favor for a seasoned colleague or a way to respectfully make way for the younger generation of MKs by sending one of the elders out of the Knesset.
Only one out the nine Israeli presidents — Moshe Katsav — was elected from an opposition party. In theory, that figure should dishearten the only current candidate from the opposition, MK Ben-Eliezer, but the reality isn’t that simple.  The ruling Likud party seems to be divided among itself, and even Netanyahu waited until the absolute last minute to endorse his party candidate, MK Rivlin.
With the ruling coalition divided and given the confidentiality of the voting, we might see a surprising result. A president from an opposition party, a non-politician president or maybe even a first female president in the history of Israel all seem within the realm of possibility.