Likud’s Sa’ar criticizes Netanyahu’s ‘hasty’ plan for direct election of PM

Likud’s Sa’ar criticizes Netanyahu’s ‘hasty’ plan for direct election of PM

Long-shot proposal, opposed by Gantz, has ‘no chance of passing,’ PM’s internal rival says, arguing that ‘we shouldn’t hastily change the system of governance’

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) speaking with then-Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar in the Knesset, October 16, 2012. (Miriam Alster/Flash 90/File)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) speaking with then-Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar in the Knesset, October 16, 2012. (Miriam Alster/Flash 90/File)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s rival within the Likud party, Gideon Sa’ar, on Sunday criticized the premier’s push for direct elections for prime minister, saying the proposal was unrealistic and hasty.

“This is a move that has no chance of passing in the few days left for this Knesset assuming no government is formed,” Sa’ar told Kan radio of the proposal Netanyahu said was aimed at averting a third round of full-blown national elections in under a year.

In a statement Saturday blaming his Blue and White party rivals for the ongoing impasse toward forming a government, Netanyahu said he would support solving the deadlock with a direct vote for the premiership, pitting himself against Blue and White head Benny Gantz.

After neither Netanyahu nor Gantz secured a majority of seats together with their respective allies in the September election, both expressed their support for a unity government including their respective parties, but talks between them have failed to result in a coalition and they have traded blame for the deadlock.

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-elect Benjamin Netanyahu, left, glances at Prime Minister Shimon Peres during a ceremony at the Knesset in Jerusalem, June 17 1996. (AP PHOTO/Nati Harnik)

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, Israel reverted back to voting for parties, rather than individuals, five years later because it proved too hard to form a coalition following the vote.

“Likud always objected to the idea of direct elections, it caused great damage and was rightly canceled after several years,” Sa’ar argued.

“When [former prime minister Ehud] Olmert tried to change the regime system after his failure in the [2006] Second Lebanon War, Netanyahu told him that a system of governance isn’t like socks which you change every day,” he said.

“We shouldn’t hastily change the system of governance to try and solve a momentary political situation,” Sa’ar added.

Likud MK Gideon Sa’ar, speaking during a conference in Tel Aviv on September 5, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

The proposal for direct elections would likely face a formidable legal challenge from the High Court of Justice as it would entail sweeping reforms by a caretaker government during an election campaign.

Last month, Shas chairman Aryeh Deri raised the idea, saying that a direct public vote for prime minister between Netanyahu and Gantz could prevent a third, full Knesset election in a year. Netanyahu, however, was said to have rejected the move out of hand, suggesting that it would not solve the impasse. A source close to Netanyahu was quoted by the Kan public broadcaster as calling the proposal “stupid” at the time.

Blue and White responded Saturday night to Netanyahu’s statement, saying that, “We are engaged in preventing costly and unnecessary elections and not hollow spins to restore a system of elections that… failed miserably.”

The party said that the idea was a “hollow proposal that aimed at diverting fire from Netanyahu, accused in three serious corruption cases, who is the only person responsible for dragging the State of Israel for the third time” to a vote.

Blue and White party chairman MK Benny Gantz during a faction meeting at the Knesset, in Jerusalem, on December 2, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Last month, the New Right party presented a long-shot plan to President Reuven Rivlin to enact electoral reforms that would see the introduction of direct elections for the premiership.

Sa’ar announced last month he would demand a primary race and would run to unseat the scandal-plagued Netanyahu. He has shied away from criticizing the prime minister over his legal troubles, but has argued instead that Netanyahu’s inability to decisively win the last two elections proved the party needed new blood at the top.

Last month, Netanyahu agreed to a Likud leadership contest, but the primary will not take place until after the December 11 deadline to form a government.

Sa’ar’s bid has drawn broad support from a number of influential Likud mayors, including from the party’s rightist pro-settlement wing, while many of the party’s top officials, including Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, MK Avi Dichter and Regional Cooperation Minister Tzachi Hanegbi, have remained pointedly mum about who they would support.

Many Likud members have criticized Sa’ar over his public challenge of Netanyahuy’s leadership, with some even accusing him of “betrayal.”

On Saturday, lawmaker Yoav Kisch joined former Sa’ar aide MK Michal Shir as the only Likud MKs to have publicly endorsed Sa’ar.

Raoul Wootliff contributed to this report.

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