Netanyahu’s direct election gambit changes the rules mid-race to ensure he wins

The PM misrepresented his plans on national TV, and for good reason. His proposals tweak the system to knock out competitors and deliver a victory he can’t otherwise attain

Haviv Rettig Gur

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at a press conference at the Knesset, in Jerusalem on April 21, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at a press conference at the Knesset, in Jerusalem on April 21, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

After four indecisive elections, Benjamin Netanyahu is keen to avoid yet another. His camp’s turnout slipped in March, despite all his achievements over the past year. Even with a 20-point drop in Arab turnout, his right-religious coalition couldn’t eke out a parliamentary majority.

So he fears another election. He might lose outright. And even a draw may turn out to be a loss as it brings him dangerously close to the moment in November where he must, under law, hand the prime minister’s chair to Benny Gantz.

No wonder he’s trying to avoid another general election via a one-off direct vote for prime minister. Let the people clarify directly who they want for prime minister, he argues, and the rest will fall into place.

As he claimed in a nationally televised address on Wednesday night, “In a direct election for prime minister, whoever is elected will automatically form a government, as is done in many democracies around the world. In other words, he won’t need the approval of the Knesset, he forms a government automatically.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the swearing-in ceremony of the 24th Knesset on April 6, 2021. (Alex Kolomoisky/Pool/Flash90)

He added: “And that’s in many democracies, from Japan and New Zealand to Norway and Portugal, and others. A majority of the public…wants it. And that’s the only democratic solution.”

Lies, damned lies and electoral revolutions

Alas, Netanyahu’s claim is untrue.

He told Israelis that “whoever is elected…won’t need the approval of the Knesset” and “forms a government automatically.”

But Likud’s own direct-election bill (drafted by Likud and formally submitted by Shas) says otherwise.

Article 13 of the bill is explicit: “If a candidate who won the direct election fails to announce the formation of a government as stipulated in article 12, or announced said government but the Knesset did not express its confidence in the government presented within seven days as stipulated in sub-article 13D, elections shall be held on the last Tuesday before 90 days have passed from the day these conditions came into effect.”

In other words, without a vote of confidence from the Knesset, the country would go to full, new parliamentary elections after all.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, arrives for the Likud party faction meeting at the Knesset, in Jerusalem on April 19, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

So why claim otherwise in a nationally televised address?

Indeed, the more one reads, the less it’s clear what the bill is meant to do. Why would a direct election solve the deadlock if the prime minister still needs the parliamentary majority he has failed to win four times now?

Is it all just a gimmick to improve Netanyahu’s negotiating position, an extraordinarily expensive public opinion poll meant to pressure Gideon Sa’ar or Betzalel Smotrich to bend to Netanyahu’s coalition needs?

No gimmick

Not quite. The bill may not do what Netanyahu claimed, but it does a great deal to help deliver a Netanyahu victory.

If the directly elected candidate fails to obtain a Knesset majority, the bill stipulates, then general parliamentary elections are called automatically. That is, elections are called before anybody else gets to try to form a coalition.

Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid speaks at Yesh Atid party headquarters in Tel Aviv on elections night, March 23, 2021. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The bill also stipulates that one doesn’t require a majority of votes to win the direct election, but only a plurality of 40 percent. That’s not a coincidence. A Channel 12 poll on Thursday found Netanyahu winning 43% of the vote in a direct election.

And Netanyahu wouldn’t have to succeed in forming a government to come out the overwhelming beneficiary of the new proposal. Assuming current polls bear out at the ballot box — i.e., Netanyahu wins over 40% of the vote in the direct election but still lacks a Knesset majority and fails to form a government — then the bill grants him six extra months as uncontestable interim prime minister.

It’s a startling point hidden in the schedule he envisages: Two months till the direct election, nearly another month of vote counting and coalition-assembling, and then, if Netanyahu fails to form a government, three more months till the general election — all without another candidate able to try their luck at assembling an alternate coalition.

Election workers count ballots in Jerusalem on March 25, 2021. (Emmanuel Dunand/AFP)

And finally, Netanyahu will argue — as some in Likud already have — that a direct election win, even without the formation of a new government, cancels the looming November rotation with Gantz, itself a product of the last time Netanyahu sought fundamental changes to the system to stay in power.

The Shas-advanced direct-election bill is thus a carefully engineered maneuver that prevents anyone else from winning the premiership while Netanyahu clings stubbornly on as Israel’s interim prime minister.

Shlomo Karhi’s Knesset takeover

But what if Netanyahu was telling the truth about a directly elected prime minister under the new regime not needing the Knesset’s approval? What if he had a different bill in mind when he spoke on Wednesday, like the one made public by Likud MK Shlomo Karhi the day after Netanyahu’s address?

Likud MK Shlomo Karhi at the Arrangements Committee meeting in the Knesset, in Jerusalem on January 13, 2020. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Karhi’s bill is similar to the Shas bill in denying any other MK the chance to try if the directly elected prime minister fails.

It amends Article 11 of the Basic Law: The Government to include: “If a [directly elected] prime minister tells the Knesset speaker he has failed to form a government or the 14-day period [for negotiating a government] has passed without his announcement that he has formed a government, the Knesset will be considered as having decided to dissolve before its term has ended.”

That is, failing to form a government automatically triggers new parliamentary elections.

But the Karhi bill doesn’t stop there. It adds an astonishing statement.

Sub-article B1 of article 11B stipulates that after the newly elected prime minister has cobbled together the new coalition and notified the Knesset speaker of his “success,” then “12 seats, additional to the 120 seats distributed after the [parliamentary] elections, will be distributed to the factions signed on the [coalition] agreements relative to the number of seats each faction received in the Knesset elections.”

Sheets of newly printed ballots seen at the Palphot printing house in Karnei Shomron, in preparation for Israel’s upcoming general elections, March 9, 2021. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

The Knesset is locked into a single candidate, even if that candidate fails to form a government; and if that candidate succeeds, the new prime minister’s coalition gets 12 extra parliamentary seats. Win the direct election and you win control of the whole system.

This bill, too, is carefully tailored to Netanyahu’s needs. Where the Shas bill sets the threshold for victory at 40%, the Karhi one simply limits who can run against Netanyahu. To get on the direct-election ballot, an MK must be nominated by 15 MKs, the bill says. It’s no coincidence that Netanyahu’s right-wing challengers Naftali Bennett and Gideon Sa’ar have 13 seats between them.

Yamina party leader Naftali Bennett at a press conference in the Knesset, in Jerusalem on April 21, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

And finally, Karhi’s bill doesn’t require any Knesset vote to okay the new coalition. If he was talking about the Karhi proposal, Netanyahu was right that the new prime minister “won’t need the approval of the Knesset.” That’s important because it means a prime minister can form a minority coalition which, by sheer dint of its members’ own agreement to work together, is automatically granted 12 extra seats and the parliamentary majority.

In sum: A directly elected prime minister who didn’t have to face the leaders of smaller parties at the ballot box, nor any second-place challengers if he fails to piece together a coalition, doesn’t even need a parliamentary majority in order to be handed a more than 20% boost to his parliamentary representation.

Karhi’s bill, unlike Shas’s, isn’t a one-off. A direct election would be called, the bill says, each time an elected Knesset cannot form a coalition in the usual way. It’s a permanent change to the system. If no candidate chosen by the president can form a majority, a candidate is chosen by direct election and then handed a parliamentary majority automatically.

It’s a strange, complicated mix that, despite Netanyahu’s claim, exists in no other democracy (Hebrew link).

It’s no way to change the system

The Shas bill offers no decisive solution except preventing the second-place candidate from trying after the first-placed one fails. Assuming the polls bear out, it amounts to a delaying tactic that keeps Netanyahu in power unchallenged but without any actual victory.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gives a press conference at the Prime Minister’s office in Jerusalem, on April 20, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Under the Karhi bill, the change is more drastic. Once the direct election is activated, Israel no longer has a straightforward parliamentary system, but not quite a presidential one either. Instead of a prime minister dependent on parliament, it shifts to a prime minister who has parliament handed to him on a silver platter.

It’s a fundamental change that, by no coincidence at all, is shaped exactly to the contours of Netanyahu’s immediate electoral needs and polling numbers. Netanyahu is the most popular candidate for prime minister, but only by a plurality. Most of the country wants him out of office but can’t agree on who should replace him. That’s the heart of the deadlock: He has no majority, but neither does anyone else. The Karhi bill solves that by bluntly turning a plurality into a majority.

Both proposals want to institute the change immediately, in the middle of the race, and in ways that blatantly serve the needs of one candidate and one camp

And again, both proposals want to institute the change immediately, in the middle of the race, and in ways that blatantly serve the needs of one candidate and one camp.

Netanyahu has 11 days left to his mandate. He seems to have given up on achieving a majority in the usual way. Instead, he’s begun to invest all his energies in winning support for a direct election.

There’s a whole slew of parties in the new Knesset — Ra’am, Yamina, Meretz, New Hope, Joint List, Religious Zionism, Labor, Blue and White — that risk disappearing below the electoral threshold in a new election. Netanyahu has been talking to them all, from Ra’am’s Mansour Abbas to Blue and White’s Gantz to Labor’s Merav Michaeli, and making what is essentially a simple argument: By handing me the direct election, you save your small party from the constant threat of elimination in an endless cycle of snap elections.

So far there haven’t been any takers. Bennett has publicly mocked the idea. Abbas is said to favor it, but won’t openly support it unless it appears set to win. Michaeli bluntly rejected Netanyahu’s overtures.

Yet for all the backchannel begging, Likud hasn’t said much about the idea beyond Netanyahu’s speeches. It hasn’t yet been debated in the Knesset or argued about in any detail in the press. Its chief advocate, Prime Minister Netanyahu, has been vague and less than honest about it.

As far as the public debate goes, the change is being advanced haphazardly, disinterestedly. It’s almost as though its proponents are trying to avoid anyone asking the vast and vital questions no one wants to answer.

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