Thursday, January 25, 2007

Figurehead in trouble

For at least the last year or so the President of Israel, Moshe Katzav, has been at the heart of a number of swirling rumors about his sexual promiscuity. But the accusations not simply embarassing, Clinton-esque shenanigans. A number of Israeli women have actually come forward claiming they were raped by the president and obsessively stalked, though the exact details of the charges have not yet been made public.

Regardless, this undeniably looks bad from a PR perspective, so there have been numerous calls for President Katzav to resign. Like many presidents, he is immune from prosecution so long as he stays in office. He's tried to compromise on the matter by suggesting he may take a temporary "leave of absence" but this cop-out has pleased no one.

Today the Prime Minister of Israel, Ehud Olmert, called for Mr. Katzav to resign, echoing recent polls which have over 70% of Israelis wanting him to step down.

The President of Israel is a largely useless figurehead position which many Israelis have advocated abolishing over the years. His only real duties are ceremonial, but Mr. Katzav hasn't been doing many of those lately cause no one really wants his blessing anymore.

If Mr. Katzav resigns- or is impeached- the speaker of the Israeli parliament will become acting president. Right now the speaker is Ms. Dalia Itzik, and if she takes office she will become the first female president in Israeli history. Mr. Katzav is the first president in Israeli history to be born outside of either Europe or Israel, having immigrated from Iran in 1950. He was also the first right-wing president, and together he has repeatedly alleged that these two facts have made him a persecuted outsider, earning the ire of the political establishment.

Albert Einstein was offered the presidency of Israel in 1952 but he refused. They stuck his portrait on the Israeli five dollar bill anyway.


The committee of the Israeli legislature charged with addressing the Katzav situation has narrowly voted to temporarily allow the president to step down. This will help him escape the scandal spotlight, but does not affect his overall immunity. Quipped one dissenting lawmaker, "The decision taken today is a prize for a man accused of rape. [...] Instead of finding himself behind bars, this man charged with rape gets a prize of continuing to serve as president."

Ms. Itzik is now Acting President of Israel for three months. But she is only "acting for" Katzav, and thus not full acting president. What's the difference?

Someone is "acting for" an individual when that individual is still legally holding office, but is temporarily not able to exercise the powers of said office, for whatever reason. Vice President Cheney was "acting for" Bush on June 29, 2002, when the president underwent a sedated colonoscopy. Prime Minister Olmert similarly "acted as" prime minister of Israel for several weeks following Ariel Sharon's debilitating stroke and subsequent coma. In Canada Prime Minister Harper's recent cabinet shuffle was formally ratified by a justice of the Supreme Court who was "acting for" the Governor General, while she was on vacation. "Acting for" leaders usually hold office for such brief periods of time they are rarely recorded in official chronologies.

A full "acting" leader, by contrast holds office when the incumbent is completely gone, and full-time replacement is thus needed. For example, if the president dies or is impeached, someone has to be installed immediately afterwards. "Acting" leaders of this sort are recognized as the full head of state and occupy their office permanently, until the situation can be resolved (for example, with fresh elections or what have you). Sometimes you'll also see terms like "interim" or "caretaker" used to describe leaders of this sort.

Olmert is an interesting case study because he went through all three distinct phases. When Sharon had his stroke he was "acting for" the prime minister. Then Sharon was declared permanetly incapacitated, and removed from office. Olmert then became full "acting" PM. And then he won an election and now he's just a plain old democratically-elected prime minister.

Some countries don't like the idea of un-elected people exercising power, so they specifically limit the powers that an acting president who replaces an elected one can have. And some countries, like the United States, don't distinguish the two offices at all. People never refer to Gerald Ford as the "acting president" of the US, even though that's more or less all he was.

Becoming an "acting" leader is often the most exciting moment in the career of a generally sub-par politician. It gives a taste of power to dull individuals who would otherwise never enjoy it. Personally, I have always found it interesting that most countries assign the duties of "second in command" to a rather inconsequential office in the government, though presumably this is done to ensure that in times of crisis the acting president is not an overly ambitious individual.

Sometimes politicians don't like being saddled with the label of "acting" however. New Jersey had an acting governor named Richard Codey who served for over a year. He thought that was long enough to count as a "full" governor so he successfully lobbied the legislature to amend the state constitution. It now declares that any acting governor who serves for over sixth months will be recorded without the "acting" prefix.


Ron said...


His name is KatZav... or katsav both work

where the TZ part is pronounced like the ZZ part in Pizza

The name Katzav in hebrew means butcher... just a little FYI

Ron said...

as for the usage of einstein's portrait on money:

1. it applies to the old Israeli Pound that hasn't existed for a while

2. Portraits on money are not restricted to Figureheads, infact Hertzl and Maimonides were featured too on the old Pound

iod said...

Katzav isn't the first Sepharadi (Asian/North-African Jew) President. The first one was Yitzhak Navon. He is the first prez who was not nominated by Labor, although his predecessor, Ezer Wiezmann, was a right-winger for part of his political career.

Lewis said...

The old Israeli currency was the Pound? That's ironic...

Despite being a figurehead, the office of the Israeli President is still superior to any Governor-General in the Commonwealth.

Brian said...

And, I completely disagree Lewis


good year

ron said...

Israeli Pound - remanent of the British mandate (in Egypt they still use an Egyptian Pound)

and as for Ezer... oh how much we miss this crazy old man with his sharp tongue and good humour

ron said...

Office of the president is not much more than the office of the governor general in commonwealth countries

He "appoints" the ellected government, pardons prisoners... and travels around the world on expensive exotic trips... sounds like the role of the governor general of Canada to me

Lewis said...

Brian: Oh really, why's that?

Ron: I meant superior in the sense that the President of Israel has more actual discretion to act as a constitutional backstop, whereas the Governor-Genreal can't.

Oh, and as we saw with the sexual abuse allegations against former Aussie Gov-Gen Dr Hollingworth, there's no democratic or accountable process for removing the G-G, expect for the PM sending a fax to Buckingham Palace to have them "recalled"...

Palmer Maddox said...

God bless and i pray that the king and queen of france reads this.