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President of Israel


PRESIDENT OF ISRAEL , the official head of the State of Israel, resembling a constitutional monarch in function and powers, bears the ancient Hebrew title of "*nasi." According to the Basic Law: President of the State, passed by the Knesset on June 16, 1964, any citizen of Israel resident in the country is eligible for the office and may hold it for no more than two consecutive terms. The seat of the president is Jerusalem. With the exception of these two provisions, the Basic Law does not differ substantially from the Presidency of the State Law, 1951, which provides that the president must be elected by a majority of all members of the Knesset (i.e., by at least 61 votes) for a five-year term beginning on the day when he makes and signs the declaration of allegiance before the Knesset. He cannot be called to account before any court but he may be deposed by the Knesset for unbecoming behavior or in the case of ill-health, which makes it impossible for him to carry out his duties.

The president signs all laws (other than those concerned with his own powers) and treaties ratified by the Knesset. He appoints (upon the recommendation of the foreign minister) the diplomatic representatives of the state, and accepts the credentials of diplomatic representatives of foreign states accredited to Israel. Upon the recommendation of the appropriate governmental authorities, he appoints the state comptroller, the governor of the Bank of Israel, the members of the civil judiciary, and the judges of the religious courts. The president receives the resignation of the government and sets in motion the process of forming a new government by consulting representatives of all the political parties in the Knesset and then entrusting a member of the Knesset with the task of setting up a government. He is also given reports of government meetings. The president is empowered to pardon offenders and to mitigate sentences.

The first president of the state, Chaim *Weizmann, was elected on Feb. 16, 1949, at the opening session of the First Knesset – held with symbolic significance in Jerusalem, though the seat of the Knesset and government was still in Tel Aviv. He brought to the presidency his extraordinary experience in Zionist leadership and diplomatic negotiation, but illness restricted his activities to the formal duties of the office. Weizmann died on Nov. 9, 1952, and was succeeded by Izhak *Ben-Zvi. Under President Ben-Zvi, the official residence and office of the president were established in Jerusalem. There for two full terms and part of a third, until his death on April 23, 1963, Ben-Zvi filled the office with rich human, spiritual, and scholarly content. He and his wife Rahel made the residence a meeting place for the diverse "tribes of Israel," aiding notably in the process of national amalgamation during those years of mass immigration from Europe and the Islamic countries. The monthly "New Moon" meetings of groups from particular countries and the "Open House" held annually during Sukkot week were typical of the direct contact established with the masses of Israel's citizens, including the Muslim, Druze, Christian, Bahai, and Samaritan communities. President Ben-Zvi paid state visits to Belgium and Holland, to Burma, and to Congo Brazzaville, the Central African Republic, and Liberia.

When Zalman *Shazar was elected president on May 21, 1963, he brought with him the qualities of a historian, Israel and Zionist leader, and orator, who had devoted himself to the world Jewish community, its educational problems, and its literature in Hebrew, Yiddish, and other languages. All these interests were expressed in the activities of the president's residence. The Bible Study Circle, originally led by the Prime Minister, David *Ben-Gurion, met there regularly, as did the Circle for the Study of the Diaspora under the aegis of the Hebrew University's Institute of Contemporary Jewry. The president instituted a special fund for the encouragement of literature and scholarship and invited outstanding writers, artists, and thinkers from abroad to visit Israel as his guests. He and his wife Rahel, a writer and women's leader, paid state visits to Nepal, Uruguay, Chile, and Brazil in 1966, and Canada in 1967.

[Shulamit Nardi]

Shazar was succeeded by Ephraim *Katzir in 1973, Yitzhak *Navon (1978), Chaim *Herzog (1983), Ezer *Weizman (1993), and Moshe *Katzav (2000). Katzir, a renowned scientist, promoted science and higher education as president as well as encouraging the spirit of volunteerism. Navon, a member of the Knesset from 1965 to 1978, was the first Israeli president to take a public stand on a controversial political issue, calling for a commission of inquiry to investigate the events surrounding the Sabra and Shatilla massacre in the Lebanon War. He also made state visits to Egypt under Sadat and the U.S. at President Reagan's invitation. Herzog too spoke out on the issues and played a key role in the formation of the 1984 and 1988 coalition governments. He visited over 30 countries, including first-time presidential visits to Germany and China. Weizman brought a brash, down-to-earth style to the presidency, more than once putting his foot in his mouth. He frequently visited the wounded in hospitals and bereaved families in their homes. He resigned the office midway through his second term because of failing health and public criticism concerning his personal finances. His successor, Moshe Katzav, took a more low-key conciliatory approach.

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