With no formally designated acting PM, potential chaos were Netanyahu incapacitated

As in past, Netanyahu has not appointed an acting premier; he asked Deri to step in for him briefly Friday, but Shas leader’s title of ‘vice PM’ is an honorific with no powers

Carrie Keller-Lynn

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

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with Minister of the Interior and Health Aryeh Deri during the swearing in ceremony of the new government at the Knesset, on December 29, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with Minister of the Interior and Health Aryeh Deri during the swearing in ceremony of the new government at the Knesset, on December 29, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Maintaining his long-held policy, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declined to designate an acting prime minister when Israel’s 37th government was sworn in last week.

The decision could potentially create political chaos if 73-year-old Netanyahu were to suddenly vacate his seat or be incapacitated.

Likud party sources confirmed that Netanyahu has not named and does not plan to name anyone to the post, citing the surprise elevation of then-acting prime minister Ehud Olmert to run the government after late prime minister Ariel Sharon’s 2006 stroke by way of explanation: Sharon, they said, apparently never intended for Olmert to lead Likud or the government, and only gave him the title for reasons of political expedience.

Shas party leader Aryeh Deri, the minister of interior and of health, is the new government’s only vice prime minister — and was asked to briefly stand in for Netanyahu when the prime minister underwent a colonoscopy on Friday, the Prime Minister’s Office said. But Deri’s vice prime minister title is an honorary one, without legal meaning, and does not signify a formal role in a prime ministerial succession.

(Deri’s legitimacy to serve as a minister at all is currently being challenged in the High Court, where justices on Thursday weighed petitions against his return to ministerial office in the light of his conviction and suspended sentence for tax offenses last year.)

In line with the law, Netanyahu can and likely will continue to appoint a temporary acting prime minister of his choice each time he goes overseas or becomes temporarily unable to perform his duties.

The last government also did not appoint acting prime ministers, but instead had Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid fill in for each other as prime minister and alternate prime minister, roles they swapped in July 2022.

Prime Minister Yair Lapid, right, with Alternate Prime Minister Naftali Bennett at a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on September 18, 2022. (Olivier Fitousi/Flash90)

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 the Netanyahu era, the Likud party, to first name an interim chief, and then a permanent one.

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.

In the event of a change at the top, the Basic Law: The Government dictates that a new government must be formed and voted in by the Knesset, rather than just naming a prime minister and continuing with the current 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.

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