The Israeli President

The Israeli presidency is largely a ceremonial role.

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Excerpted with permission from the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs website.

The president, Israel's head of state, is elected to a five-year term by a majority of the Knesset in a secret ballot. The president can be re-elected for only one more consecutive term. 

Special Duties

The president appoints senior state officials in positions of special importance and independence, including the state comptroller, the governor of the Bank of Israel, the president and deputy-president of the Supreme Court, and judges, including rabbinical judges and Muslim and Druze qadis [religious judges]. The president also appoints the president of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, the president of Magen David Adom [Israel's equivalent to the Red Cross], and members of the Chief Rabbinate Council, the Council for Higher Education, the Broadcasting Authority plenum, and other public councils.

The president accredits Israel's envoys to foreign countries and accepts the credentials of foreign diplomats serving in Israel. He signs every law enacted by the Knesset and treaties and agreements with foreign countries that have been ratified by the Knesset. The president maintains constant contact with the government through regular meetings with officials, weekly briefings on government sessions, and receiving regular, comprehensive information from the various government agencies.

Presidential Powers

The president has exclusive power to pardon or commute the sentences of civilians and soldiers. Because of the exalted status of his position, the president represents not only Israel but the entire Jewish people. As such, he assumes a lengthy series of duties and activities beyond those spelled out in law. The president maintains contacts with Diaspora Jewish leaders and high-ranking visitors from overseas; promotes cultural and educational activity in Israel; and acts to enhance Jewish and Zionist education for Diaspora youth in order to encourage their immigration to Israel. He works to resolve social and welfare problems as well as to advance weak strata of the population. The president tours the country extensively and maintains close relations with all segments of the population.

 

Chaim Weizmann (left), Israel's first president, and Moshe Katsav (right). Photo credit: Ministry of Foreign Affairs

The incumbent president makes special efforts to disseminate information on the history of the Jewish communities of which Israel's population is composed. He displays particular interest in social relations among population groups and strives to improve them, working with a broad, diverse spectrum of communities: religious and non-religious, different ethnic groups, countries of origin, political orientation, etc. All such efforts are intended to promote dialogue, understanding, and tolerance in Israeli society.

State and Public Duties

The president also performs many state and public duties not prescribed by law, e.g., promoting public associations and agencies and hosting official delegations and guests. Past presidents as well as the incumbent have turned the official president's residence into an emblem of Jewish national and cultural unity. It houses the Diaspora Research Group, the President's Fund (assistance in special cases of need), and the Amos Fund (to encourage scholars and authors and the publication of special books). 

The presidency is a round-the-clock job. In addition to his ceremonial duties, the president spends many hours meeting personalities from Israel and overseas in order to acquaint himself at first-hand with the issues and topics that preoccupy Israeli society and foreign relations. The president is attentive to the people's concerns, achievements, joys, and distress. Occasionally he expresses his positions on various matters, encourages those engaged in important activities, and warns against phenomena that have no place in Israeli society. With his sensitivity, attentiveness, and accessibility, the president can feel the country's pulse and serve all citizens as an address and source of support. 

Israel's former presidents have included Chaim Weizmann, the first president (Feb. 17, 1949 - Nov. 9, 1952), a public figure and chemist; Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, the second president (Dec. 12, 1952 - Apr. 23, 1963), a member of the Second Aliyah, public figure, and historian of Jewish communities; Zalman Shazar, the third president (May 21, 1963 - May 24, 1973, author, political figure, and Jewish historian; Ephraim Katzir, the fourth president (May 24, 1973 - May 28, 1978), a renowned biochemist and biophysicist; Yitzhak Navon, the fifth president (May 29, 1978 - May 5, 1983), politician, statesman, educator, and author; Chaim Herzog, the sixth president (May 5, 1983 - May 12, 1993), general, diplomat, statesman and attorney; Ezer Weizman, the seventh President, air force general, politician, businessman (May 13, 1993 - July 12, 2000), Moshe Katzav, the eighth president (August 1, 2000 – July 1, 2007) and Shimon Peres (July 15, 2007 – present).

Presidential Residence

The president's official residence is situated in a central Jerusalem neighborhood, one of the city's oldest and loveliest. The structure includes the residential quarters for the president and his family, the president's bureau, a banquet hall, a synagogue, and a smaller facility for receptions and sundry activities. The garden, surrounding the residence with a profusion of indigenous flora, also serves as a venue for receptions and public events. The residence abounds with objets d'art (paintings, rugs, sculpture), and with displays of archaeological and ethnographic finds, Judaica, ancient books, maps, etc. 

The staff of the President's Bureau includes a director-general, deputy director-general, aides and advisors on various matters (political, Diaspora, minorities), a military adjutant, a legal department (dealing primarily with clemency), a public inquiries department (public inquiries and welfare), and a maintenance department (operations and regular maintenance). The 50-member staff handles the routine operation of the residence, including services to past presidents. 

Appointments: The legislature has empowered the president to appoint certain office holders, in order to emphasize their importance and autonomy. The largest and most important group of such officeholders comprises those in the judicial system. In accordance with the June, 1986, amendment to the Military Justice Law 5715-1955, the president also appoints military judges, formerly named by the military establishment. 

Events at the president's residence: The president's residence is the scene of many different types of events, attended by thousands of visitors. Throughout the year, the president hosts groups, organizations, and institutions reflecting the full spectrum of life in Israel. They come to inform the president of their activities, successes, difficulties, and challenges, and to seek encouragement. These groups represent education, culture, development towns, rural agricultural settlements, industry, volunteer organizations, the arts, science, sports, immigrant absorption, re-attraction of emigrants, elimination of social disparities, minorities, economic and export promotion, and many others. 

A number of ceremonies are held at the president's residence on a regular basis. These include the Independence Day reception for outstanding soldiers, Israel Defense Force (IDF) generals, and senior security personnel; ceremonies for the heads of foreign missions in Israel to mark Israel Independence Day and the Jewish and civil New Years; special receptions for the leaders of the Christian communities, who congratulate the president on the occasion of the Jewish New Year; and State receptions and events as required by protocol.

Ceremonies, Conferences, Encounters

The president is a frequent participant in opening ceremonies, conferences, encounters, mass meetings, memorial services, and national and international meetings and congresses throughout the country. He takes part in memorial services for IDF and security service dead and for victims of the Holocaust. 

Open Houses: Over the years, since the tenure of the second president, Itzhak Ben-Zvi, the presidents of Israel have maintained the custom of opening their official residence to the general public during the Sukkot (Tabernacles) holiday in the early fall, receiving Israeli citizens and foreign tourists in the presidential sukkah. 

Public Petitions: Thousands of citizens from all walks of life present the president and his wife with petitions concerning diverse personal matters and their relations with public institutions. These citizens view the institution of the presidency and its incumbent as an appropriate address for resolving their problems. Normally these petitions express not only their writers' distress but also their faith in the president and his ability to help them. Most such applications are presented by citizens who have exhausted conventional channels.

President's Fund

President's Fund: The major instrument available to the President for providing financial assistance to some of the many citizens who turn to him in dire straits, frequently as the symbol of the State's responsibility for well-being, is the President's Fund. Established during the tenure of the second President, Itzhak Ben-Zvi, it was elevated to the status of a charitable trust by the fourth President, Prof. Ephraim Katzir, in 1973. The Fund's activities cover the entire country and have affected many localities. It has helped thousands of families and individuals solve their problems and has promoted and supported many social, medical, cultural, and educational endeavors. Individuals receive assistance from the Fund only after scrutiny of their socioeconomic status and on recommendation of the responsible professional agencies.

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