Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday devoted significant chunks of a primetime address to implore Yamina chief Naftali Bennett to support legislation for the direct election of prime minister, a proposal the incumbent prime minister has thrown his weight behind as his other attempts at forming a government after last month’s elections have so far fallen flat.
Netanyahu claimed that such legislation would mean that were he to win a direct-election vote, he would then “automatically” set up the next government, as he said is the case in many democracies.
This is not the case in Israel, however, where the quasi-constitutional Basic Law: The Government requires a prospective government to win a vote of confidence in the 120-seat Knesset before it can be sworn in. It is also not the case in any of the four other democracies named by Netanyahu — Japan, New Zealand, Norway and Portugal.
“Once a government is assembled, it will appear before the Knesset, announcing the fundamental principles of its policies, its composition and the allocation of roles between ministers, and will request a vote of confidence; a government will be formed once the Knesset has expressed confidence in it and from that same time ministers will begin their tenures,” the relevant section of the law (Hebrew) says.
That Basic Law would therefore have to be amended to introduce direct elections, requiring the support of 61 Knesset members — the very majority that has eluded Netanyahu through four inconclusive elections over the past two yeas.
The proposal to hold a direct vote for the premiership was first floated by the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, a key pillar in Netanyahu’s right-wing religious bloc, though Likud officials were pitching it to potential allies before Shas publicly encouraged it.
Championing the measure as the best way to end Israel’s two-year long political impasse, Netanyahu claimed in his televised speech that if Bennett backs the proposal, it will win a majority.
“There is a solution here, in front of us, that doesn’t require Gideon [Sa’ar] or [Bezalel] Smotrich,” Netanyahu said. “A solution whereby the public simply determines who will be prime minister. And this solution depends only on you [Bennett]. If you vote in favor, it’ll have a majority.
“In a direct election for the prime minister,” Netanyahu then claimed, “whoever is chosen will automatically set up the government — as is normal in many democracies. He wouldn’t need the approval of the Knesset. He automatically forms a government. That’s the case in many democracies from Japan and New Zealand, to Norway and Portugal,” he said.
In fact, the directly elected prime minister does not automatically form the government, without further approval, in any of the four countries cited by Netanyahu.
Netanyahu went on: “Most of the public, and the vast majority of your supporters, Naftali, want this. This is the only democratic solution, in complete contrast to the anti-democratic, surreal effort you and Lapid are attempting, with the support of the left-wing media, to set up a left-wing government headed by a prime minister with seven seats…
“The government you are planning will quickly collapse and lead to new general elections,” Netanyahu told Bennett. “But that doesn’t bother you. You’ll do everything to satisfy your unbridled personal ambition… Everything to be a prime minister with seven seats, even if only for a few months, even at the head of a left-wing government, and even at the price of destroying the right.
“I ask you simply,” Netanyahu concluded: “Stop misleading the public. Stop playing games. Cancel your anti-democratic deal with Lapid for a left-wing government in opposition to the will of the people and your voters. Immediately support direct election for the prime minister. Only then can you call your party Yamina (Right) and not Smola (Left).”
However, such a vote would not affect the current allocation of seats in the Knesset, meaning Netanyahu would still be forced to convince the far-right Religious Zionism and Islamist Ra’am to cooperate — which they are currently unwilling to do.
As he seeks support for direct elections, Netanyahu phoned Ra’am leader Mansour Abbas on Wednesday, apparently for the first time since the elections. While Netanyahu in his address lambasted Bennett for ostensibly planning a government based on the support of the Joint List of Arab parties, Likud has been seeking to woo Abbas, head of the Islamic Ra’am party. Netanyahu had claimed before the elections that Ra’am backs terrorism and vowed not to rely on the Islamist faction to form a government.
A statement released by Ra’am said Abbas and Netanyahu “discussed current political issues, including the potential for forming a government,” but did not explicitly mention the proposal.
Netanyahu also spoke to Blue and White leader Benny Gantz, Labor leader Merav Michaeli, and Meretz chairman Nitzan Horowitz in a longshot bid to get the centrist and left-wing parties on board with the direct vote for premier, Channel 12 reported.
In his own primetime speech Wednesday, Bennett appeared to rule out backing the proposal.
“He’s pushing for only one thing, more elections, this time packaged as direct elections [for prime minister]. He’s saying ‘if I don’t have a government, nobody will have a government; we’ll have elections — 5th and 6th and 7th,’” Bennett said.
“This cannot go on. Israel cannot be held hostage by politicians,” he continued. “More elections means more wasted billions… more long months of divisive discourse… While the country wants a government, Netanyahu prefers another election. I won’t allow this to happen.”
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.
Yamina, at the time, backed the proposal, which ultimately did not attract sufficient support. The Knesset dissolved on December 11, 2019, and new elections were held in March 2020.