Netanyahu hasn’t designated an acting PM. What would that mean if he’s out of action?

Keeping with his past policy, Netanyahu didn’t tap an automatic successor upon taking office in December. However, his health scares and legal woes may end up affecting his tenure

Carrie Keller-Lynn

Carrie Keller-Lynn is a former political and legal correspondent for The Times of Israel

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a Knesset session on July 10, with Likud ministers Yariv Levin (left) and Israel Katz seated either side of him. (Menahem KAHANA / AFP)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a Knesset session on July 10, with Likud ministers Yariv Levin (left) and Israel Katz seated either side of him. (Menahem KAHANA / AFP)

As far as we know, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not require a temporary replacement during the Saturday health scare that led to his overnight hospitalization in a cardiac care unit, but his continued refusal to appoint an automatic acting prime minister — when he has now twice been rushed to a hospital within a year — highlights the question of who would fill in for the premier in an emergency scenario.

As it stands, that role would be filled by an interim prime minister to be chosen by the cabinet — leaving great uncertainty about who would take the helm should such a crisis develop.

Israeli law requires an acting prime minister to step in during situations in which the leader is either abroad or temporarily unable to perform their duties, such as during a medical procedure involving loss of consciousness. In line with the law, Netanyahu has appointed a temporary acting prime minister each time it became necessary.

When Israel’s 37th government was sworn in in December, Netanyahu stuck to his longtime policy and declined to tap a person who would automatically take over, meaning that each time he travels abroad or undergoes general anesthesia he names a temporary replacement.

But, without a default replacement for the premier, the cabinet could be thrown into confusion if the prime minister were unable to tap another minister to be the stand-in. It is unclear who Netanyahu would have chosen on Saturday, should he have needed to name a temporary acting premier.

Netanyahu was released from the hospital on Sunday, and he and Sheba Medical Center have expressed assurances that he is feeling well. The hospital said doctors had completed a series of examinations — reportedly in the cardiology department — and found no abnormalities, although they implanted a heart monitoring device so that his health could be further tracked.

Sheba confirmed that the reason for Netanyahu’s hospitalization was dehydration after the premier vacationed at the Sea of Galilee during a heatwave without wearing a hat.

A source in the Prime Minister’s Office told The Times of Israel Sunday that at no point during his hospitalization did Netanyahu undergo a procedure that required loss of consciousness. However, there was no comment on Hebrew media reports that said that before the hospitalization, the premier collapsed at his home Saturday and lost consciousness.

Cabinet would tap interim PM, potentially form new government

Although Justice Minister Yariv Levin also serves as deputy prime minister, this title is largely honorific and does not put Levin in line to automatically become acting prime minister.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks with Minister of Justice Yariv Levin during a Knesset plenum hearing, July 10, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Similarly, Shas party leader Aryeh Deri had the title of vice prime minister before the High Court of Justice ordered him fired from Netanyahu’s cabinet due to his criminal convictions, but that title too was devoid of legal significance, and did not signify a formal role in a prime ministerial succession.

For years, Netanyahu has not named anyone as permanent acting prime minister.  Likud party sources explained this by citing the surprise elevation of then-acting prime minister Ehud Olmert to run the government after late prime minister Ariel Sharon suffered a major stroke in 2006. Sharon, they said, apparently never intended for Olmert to lead his party or the government, and only gave him the title for reasons of political expedience.

Israel does not have a succession plan to kick into action in the event the prime minister becomes incapacitated, as occurred with Sharon.

Instead, two parallel processes would be triggered — in the cabinet and, in Netanyahu’s case, the Likud party, which would first name an interim chief, and then a permanent one.

Cabinet ministers would convene to choose an interim prime minister, with no one formally filling the spot until that decision is made. The interim prime minister, according to law, needs to be a minister, an MK, and a member of the same faction as the outgoing prime minister. The interim prime minister would have up to 100 days to fill the role before a permanent change is required.

MK Aryeh Deri seen during a vote on the judge-picking panel at the assembly hall of the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem, June 14, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In the event of a change at the helm, Basic Law: The Government dictates that a new government must be formed and voted in by the Knesset — which would mean cobbling together a new coalition, potentially with different parties than the existing one. It would not be allowed to just name a prime minister and continue with the same government.

“There has to be a new government formed, they would have to build it from scratch,” said Amir Fuchs, democratic institutions expert at the Israel Democracy Institute.

The same processes would occur if Netanyahu were to voluntarily step down without the government falling, such as if it were a potential condition for a plea deal in his ongoing corruption trial. In either scenario, uncertainty over permanent leadership would be likely to reign for some time as politicians jockey to fill the top spots.

The internal Likud process

Because Likud is one of the few Knesset parties to run primaries, a parallel process within the party to choose its next leader would likely affect the governmental process if Netanyahu were to permanently vacate his seat.

According to Likud’s internal court president Michael Kleiner — himself a longtime former MK — the Likud movement’s constitution sets out that “you cannot be a candidate for premier without being chair of the party,” meaning that the internal contest for interim leadership of Likud would become the de facto contest for prime minister, presuming the Knesset hasn’t called snap general elections.

Michael Kleiner as a Knesset member, April 17, 2002 (Flash90)

“As soon as an interim leader of the movement is chosen, they’re the natural candidate to form a government,” Kleiner added, speaking to The Times of Israel shortly after Netanyahu’s most recent swearing-in.

Tourism Minister Haim Katz serves as chairman of Likud’s Central Committee, an approximately 3,500-member party council that decides several party-related issues.

Kleiner said that the Likud constitution would immediately assign Katz, as Central Committee chairman, a 21-day provisional party chairman status, during which he must convene the panel for further decision-making.

The Central Committee then has two roles: first, it must elect a temporary party leader, and second, it must set a date for leadership primaries, within 90 days of deciding upon the temporary party leader.

Depending upon the timing of the various government and Likud party-based decisions, Likud’s automatic passing of the provisional baton to Katz — who is not even a member of the newly appointed security cabinet — could theoretically lead to him becoming the party’s de facto interim prime ministerial candidate.

Or, enterprising politicians may try to take advantage of the prevailing uncertainty to write a different political future.

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