JERUSALEM -- In a nation torn by deep and bitter divisions between left and right, Jew and Arab and religious and secular, Israel's presidency remains one of the few institutions that command a popular consensus.

The coalition government may have two de facto premiers -- Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and his main political rival, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres -- but it has only one president, 69-year-old Chaim Herzog. Although a member of Peres' Labor political bloc, Herzog has sought to steer a path between the two men and the warring political factions they represent.

"This office is supposed to be a unifying element, and I see my role as that of a bridge," said Herzog in a recent interview. He travels to Washington Monday for a seven-day trip, the first formal state visit to the United States by an Israeli president.

For years, Israel's presidency has been a symbolic office with little real clout. That reflected the wishes of founding father David Ben-Gurion, a prime minister who wanted no rival source of influence. But since Herzog was elected to the post in 1983 by Israel's parliament, he has found himself thrust into a more activist role by the demands of a society that sometimes seems paralyzed on crucial issues.

Last year, for example, Shamir and Peres entreated Herzog to put an end to an investigation of the Shin Bet security service by pardoning those allegedly involved in the killing of two captured Palestinian bus hijackers and in the subsequent cover-up.

The president acceded, granting amnesty to 11 top officials of the agency in a move that was roundly denounced by the press and by Israeli and Palestinian human rights activists, although supported by large majorities in opinion polls.

He came under similar fire earlier this year when he commuted to 24 years each the life sentences of three Jewish settlers convicted of murdering Arab civilians in the occupied West Bank in retaliation for attacks on Jews. It was the first time that people convicted of terrorist killings in Israel had had their sentences reduced.

The president drew fire from the other side of Israel's political divide when he blackballed ultrarightist Rabbi Meir Kahane after Kahane won a Knesset seat in 1984 on a platform of forcibly expelling Arabs from Israel and the occupied territories.

Herzog broke longstanding tradition by refusing to invite Kahane to a meeting at the president's office and by stating that as long as he was president, he would never do so. That began a trend of ostracism of Kahane by other politicians and by the Israeli media that has helped frustrate the rabbi's efforts to expand his base of support.

All of these actions have made Herzog a more controversial president than many of his predecessors and given a higher profile to a post once known for its invisibility. "It isn't the office that has changed, it's the country," he said.

Israel is a nation of few sacred cows and fewer aristocrats, but political observers say Chaim Herzog is a little of both. He was born in Ireland, and his father was chief rabbi of Ireland before becoming the first chief rabbi of the new Jewish state. Herzog was a British Army intelligence officer during World War II and served twice as Israel's director of military intelligence.

After retiring from the Army in 1962, he worked as a lawyer and a businessman. He was the first military governor of the West Bank in 1967 and was ambassador to the United Nations in the late 1970s, when Israel was under constant attack in the world body from the Arab states and their allies. The General Assembly resolution equating Zionism with racism -- a diplomatic blow that still causes much rancor here -- passed in 1976, during Herzog's tenure.

He is a labor Zionist of the old school -- an unabashed patriot who is hawkish on defense matters.

Like many Israelis, he disputes the image of Israel that he says is conveyed by the foreign press. He says he is far more worried about the conflict between religious and secular Jews than about that between Jews and Arabs.

"The Arab-Jewish conflict is less disturbing to me because it isn't as bad as it is portrayed," he said. "In reality, Arabs and Jews are living with each other and trading with each other every day. The picture painted overseas is black and white, but in fact over here it is a series of different shades of gray."