Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday declared his support for holding a special direct election for the premiership and attacked Yamina party leader Naftali Bennett, accusing him of “absurd” political gambits that, he claimed, would lead to a left-wing government.
Earlier, the ultra-Orthodox Shas party submitted a bill to hold a special election next month to pick the prime minister as a way of resolving a political deadlock that has seen four inconclusive elections in two years, the last of which was held in March. Though Netanyahu has since been tasked with forming a government, he has struggled to build a majority coalition.
Bennett, who wants to be prime minister himself though his party won only seven seats in the Knesset, has courted both Netanyahu and the bloc of parties seeking to replace him, led by Yesh Atid chief MK Yair Lapid.
“We need a direct election. It is absurd for Bennett to be prime minister,” Netanyahu said at the start of his Likud party’s weekly faction meeting at the Knesset, minutes after holding an hour-and-a-half-long meeting with Bennett.
“There is a solution to the political problem and an overwhelming majority of the public supports it,” Netanyahu said. “Instead of establishing an absurd government, for example with a prime minister who in the elections got just seven seats, there will be direct elections for prime minister. The public will directly choose the prime minister in quick elections, without disbanding the Knesset.”
Should the Shas bill pass into law it would prevent Lapid from having a chance to form a government even if Netanyahu fails to do so, and would also end Bennett’s bid to be prime minister. In addition, it would block Blue and White leader Benny Gantz from taking over as prime minister in November, as is the current arrangement under the unity government agreement with Likud, if no coalition is formed by then.
Under the terms of the Shas proposal for a direct election, the successful candidate will need 40 percent support to be elected prime minister.
A majority comprising at least 61 Knesset members is required to approve the proposal, making it an unlikely prospect. Immediately after the bill was submitted, Yesh Atid leader Lapid voiced his opposition to the proposal.
“We don’t need more elections. We had elections, and they ended with Netanyahu unable to form a government, for the fourth time,” Lapid said.
“This is not a personal election, this is a fifth election,” he said. “If [Netanyahu] fails to form a government, we will ask the president for the mandate to form an Israeli unity government.”
As the leader of the second-largest party in the Knesset, Lapid has the best claim to be next in line to try forming a government after Netanyahu, who has 15 more days to cobble together a coalition until his mandate is up.
MK Gideon Sa’ar, who broke off from Likud to establish New Hope ahead of March’s election with the declared aim of ousting Netanyahu, also expressed opposition to the bill.
“This is not the time to take Israel to further elections, and it is wrong to change the system of government in the middle of a parliamentary procedure taking place,” Sa’ar said.
“This is like changing the rules of the game in the middle of a game,” he said.
MK Mansour Abbas, who heads Ra’am, an Islamist party, said he may consider backing the bill.
“We are examining the law and its consequences, and our position will be determined by what is best for Arab society and for Ra’am,” he said at the Ra’am faction meeting.
Religious Zionism leader Bezalel Smotrich, meanwhile, urged Sa’ar and Bennett to enter a right-wing government led by Netanyahu.
Appealing to Sa’ar, the far-right MK said: “I pledge to stand to your right and work together for Israel’s citizens.”
He also accused Bennett, his former colleague in Yamina, of “sitting on the fence and waiting for Netanyahu to fail [to form a government] in order to establish a government with Lapid, Labor and Meretz.”
Blue and White leader Gantz, at his faction meeting, announced he would oppose the direct vote for prime minister.
He also warned Bennett and Ra’am chief Abbas not to join a government led by Netanyahu, saying the prime minister is setting up a “trap” for them.
Addressing Bennett, Gantz said: “Netanyahu is not negotiating with you — he wants to make you morally and politically bankrupt. It’s not a negotiation over the creation of a government, it’s another fraud attempt.”
The leaders of the left-wing Meretz and Labor parties also expressed their opposition to the bill.
The Shas-spearheaded proposal stipulates that if no candidate wins 40% of the votes, or two candidates reach an equal result, there will be a second round of full national elections within two weeks.
Only voters who participated in the March election, the most recent Knesset election, will be allowed to vote.
The bill proposes that the election results will be published within eight days and that immediately following the result announcement, all powers belonging to the prime minister and the alternate prime minister (Gantz) will be transferred to the winning candidate.
Once a candidate has been elected, they will be required to form a government within 90 days and will notify the Knesset speaker of its members. President Reuven Rivlin, who usually tasks candidates with forming a government after each national elections, will not be involved.
Shas leader Aryeh Deri urged lawmakers to back the bill, in an effort to resolve Israel’s two-year political deadlock.
“The simple proposal is aimed at saving Israel from this crisis,” he said at his party’s faction meeting.
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 March.
The bill is a one-time, temporary provision. It was submitted by two Shas MKs, Michael Malkieli and Moshe Arbel.
“In light of the ongoing political crisis, which is taking place alongside very heavy health, security, political and economic challenges, a decision is called for as soon as possible,” Malkieli told the Walla news site.
Netanyahu has consistently polled as the most preferred candidate for the position of premier, even though his numbers are well below 50 percent.
Last week Channel 12 reported that Netanyahu is hoping that with Bennett’s support for the initiative, it will have a majority to pass into a law in the Knesset.
The parties that have backed Netanyahu hold 52 seats. With Yamina’s support, the bill would have 59 MKs voting in favor, still not a majority in the 120-seat Knesset, requiring Ra’am’s backing.
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.
However, the country reverted back to voting only for parties five years later, because it proved too hard to form a coalition based on the results of direct elections for the premiership.
The last time a direct election was held in Israel for the premiership was in 2001.
The proposal for direct election of the prime minister would likely face a formidable legal challenge in the High Court of Justice, as it would entail sweeping legislative reforms by a caretaker government.
In early December 2019, following the second inconclusive vote of the year, Netanyahu said that he would support a proposal for direct elections for prime minister in a bid aimed at averting a third round of full-blown national elections.
Raoul Wootliff contributed to this report.