As proposal for direct PM elections gathers steam, Netanyahu denies weighing it
Initiative would not change deadlocked coalition arithmetic

As proposal for direct PM elections gathers steam, Netanyahu denies weighing it

Likud says premier is still aiming for a unity government, though party’s Knesset faction chair claimed PM would support a vote for the top spot only

Raoul Wootliff is the The Times of Israel's political correspondent.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, chairs the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem, November 3, 2019. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty, pool)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, chairs the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem, November 3, 2019. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty, pool)

The Likud party denied on Tuesday that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was planning to push for an immediate and drastic change to Israel’s election law that would reintroduce a direct election for the prime minister in a last-ditch effort to break the ongoing political deadlock.

“Prime Minister Netanyahu is not promoting the direct election law but the establishment of a broad national unity government — the only government that can be formed and that the State of Israel needs at this time,” the ruling party said in a statement, contradicting its own Knesset faction chair.

During a Monday meeting of the bloc of right-wing and religious parties that have vowed to support Netanyahu, Shas chairman Interior Minister Aryeh Deri reportedly raised the idea, saying that a direct public vote for prime minister could prevent a full-blown third Knesset election in a year. Netanyahu, however, was said to have rejected the idea out of hand, suggesting that it would not solve the impasse.

President Reuven Rivlin last month tasked Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz with attempting to form a coalition, after Netanyahu failed in the wake of the September elections. But Gantz’s chances of succeeding where the prime minister failed are seen as just as slim, with Netanyahu’s 55-strong bloc of supporting lawmakers from his Likud, right-wing, and religious parties refusing to budge.

Blue and White has called for a unity government with Likud, but without its allied ultra-Orthodox and hard-right parties. Likud has refused to negotiate outside of Netanyahu’s 55-strong bloc of supporters.

While a direct election for prime minister would automatically determine who would form the government, it would not change the coalition arithmetic, and the winner would still need to form a coalition from the same parties elected in September.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with his right-wing and religious allies, in the Knesset on November 4, 2019 (Courtesy)

Israel briefly experimented with direct elections for prime minister in the 1990s — Netanyahu’s first election to the premiership, when he defeated Shimon Peres in 1996, was also Israel’s first direct election for prime minister — but quickly reverted back to voting for parties, rather than individuals, because it proved too hard to form a coalition following the vote.

Despite Netanyahu’s reported rejection of Deri’s proposal, the newly elected Likud Knesset faction chairman, MK Miki Zohar, said on Tuesday that the prime minister would support the idea.

“If and when we have to be dragged into another election, we will ask that there be [only] a direct choice between Prime Minister Netanyahu and Benny Gantz. We want this Knesset to remain and we will ask for a direct election. I think that should happen and I also think that Netanyahu will eventually agree to that,” Zohar told the Ynet news site.

“I think he is considering it and I think that ultimately it is the right thing for him and for the country. The ideal solution for me is direct elections without a day off [from work]. It doesn’t cost the state money and we end the political impasse in one day,” he added.

New Right MK Ayelet Shaked speaks during the Israel Social Cohesion Summit in Airport City on November 5, 2019. (Avshalom Shoshoni/Flash90)

Speaking Tuesday morning to the Anti-Defamation League’s third annual Israel Social Cohesion Summit, New Right chairwoman Ayelet Shaked said that “Deri’s direct election initiative in the current situation is the right thing to do. We will support it.”

After Monday’s meeting, the bloc of 55 issued a statement reaffirming their united front and calling on Gantz to join them in a broad unity government.

Elections in April, and then again in September, did not give either Likud or Blue and White a clear path to forming a coalition with other parties, nor have the two parties been able to agree on a unity government. So far, political figures on all sides and the president have said they want to do everything possible to avoid sending the country to a third vote.

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