Brief hospitalization shows risk Netanyahu takes by not designating a deputy

Brief hospitalization shows risk Netanyahu takes by not designating a deputy

With no clear replacement 'just a heartbeat away,' bitter political battle might ensue among would-be Likud successors were disaster to strike

Raoul Wootliff

Raoul Wootliff covers politics, corruption and crime for The Times of Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu waiting for government ministers to join him before a special cabinet meeting for Jerusalem day in Jerusalem, June 2, 2016. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu waiting for government ministers to join him before a special cabinet meeting for Jerusalem day in Jerusalem, June 2, 2016. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool)

Since coming to power in 2009, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has never named a permanent designated deputy, who would automatically take over leadership of the country if he were unexpectedly indisposed, or removed from office by impeachment.

Instead, each time he travels abroad or undergoes a medical procedure under sedation, Netanyahu names a different senior Likud minister as his temporary stand-in.

But on Tuesday night, when he was hospitalized after suffering from a high fever and coughing and forced to undergo a series of tests at Jerusalem’s Hadassah Medical Center in Ein Karem, the prime minister risked mass confusion by apparently choosing not to appoint a temporary replacement.

A spokesperson for the Prime Minister’s Office told The Times of Israel they were “not aware” if a temporary deputy prime minister had been appointed who would take over if Netanyahu were to be sedated or otherwise incapacitated. Army Radio reported that throughout the check-up he was conscious and capable of fulfilling all his responsibilities as prime minister.

A statement from the Prime Minister’s Office had listed his symptoms as a high fever and “coughs,” without providing further details.

Netanyahu had been ill in recent weeks and his condition initially worsened because he had not taken enough rest to fully recover, Netanyahu’s personal physician Zvi Berkowitz said in the PMO statement, sent out just before 10 p.m.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a Likud party faction meeting at the Knesset, February 5, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The prime minister was later released with the diagnosis of a “mild virus of the upper respiratory system.” But had things worked out differently, ministers would have been left with no clear replacement.

According to Basic Law: The Government, if an emergency is called while the prime minister is incapacitated and he has failed to appoint a permanent or temporary deputy, the cabinet secretary would have to convene a cabinet meeting and government ministers would have to vote on who should take over.

Under that provision, when Ariel Sharon suffered a stroke in 2006, Ehud Olmert assumed the prime minister’s authority immediately, having been appointed as a potential replacement three years earlier.

If the prime minister is still incapacitated after 100 days, he will be “deemed permanently unable to exercise his office,” states paragraph 16(b) of Basic Law: The Government. The temporary replacement would then automatically take the permanent role of prime minister.

Since the position of designated replacement was first instituted into law (as part of the 1984 rotation agreement for Labor’s Shimon Peres and Likud’s Yitzhak Shamir to each serve two years as prime minister), not every premier has filled it.

When Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated in 1995 there was no designated replacement and Shimon Peres only became the interim prime minister after a cabinet vote.

Unlike then, however, Netanyahu’s government has no obvious replacement for its all-powerful head.

In last two years alone, Tourism Minister Yariv Levin, Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz, Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz, Jerusalem Minister Zeev Elkin and Culture Minister Miri Regev have all been given the prized role, for various short periods of time.

And some of those ministers present an additional complication.

While all would have been able to chair cabinet meetings if needed, some are not permanent members of the more exclusive Security Cabinet — which is tasked with outlining and implementing foreign and defense policy — and so would have been unable to convene that forum should a national security emergency arise. Netanyahu, therefore, at times also had to specifically designate Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman as someone who could convene the Security Cabinet if necessary.

In addition to skimping on a deputy, Netanyahu has also forgone his former practice of appointing the honorary positions of deputy prime minister and vice prime minister.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu coughing while addressing an annual health conference in Tel Aviv on March 27, 2018. (AFP / JACK GUEZ)

The deputy and vice have no official executive power, and are no more entitled to replace an incapacitated prime minister than other cabinet members, but Netanyahu bestowed the title upon a slew of ministers — both during his first term from 1996-1999 and between 2009-2015.

Perhaps due to the fear of creating potential challenger within his own party, Netanyahu has prevented the emergence of any heir apparent by constantly rotating the position of temporary prime minister and avoiding the appearance of any favorite, even among his closest allies.

If disaster were to strike, there would likely be vicious infighting within the Likud as to who would take the reins amid the crisis.

Americans like to say that their vice president is “just a heartbeat away from the presidency.” Tuesday night’s hospital visit, minor as it turned out to be, might remind Israelis that they could be just a heartbeat away from political havoc.

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