Analysis

In Direct Election for Israeli Prime Minister, Some Right-wing Voters May Defect to Gantz

It's too early to tell if the trial balloon to hold direct election will take off, but rightists who chose Lieberman's party in September election show that clear division into two blocs doesn't mean voters would split that way

Left to right: Kahol Lavan leader Benny Gantz, Shas chairman and Interior Minister Arye Dery, and Prime Minister Prime Minister attend a memorial service for Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, November 4, 2019.
Emil Salman

It’s too early to tell if the trial balloon to hold a direct election for the prime minister between Benjamin Netanyahu and Benny Gantz will take off – and if it can pull Israel’s political wagon out of the quagmire. The proposal, the initiative of Interior Minister Arye Dery of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, gained momentum Tuesday after a raft of Knesset members came out in support of the move.

MK Miki Zohar, the Likud whip, said the prime minister was considering agreeing to the proposal. Netanyahu doesn’t want a third election, but if the Knesset is dissolved, Likud will demand a direct election between Netanyahu and Kahol Lavan’s Gantz, Zohar told the Ynet news website. Likud later added that Netanyahu wasn’t shooting for a direct-election law but “the formation of a broad national unity government.”

No written version of Dery’s initiative exists yet, and nothing yet proves that a stable government can be formed the day after an election for the prime minister. Officials in Shas and the right-wing Hayamin Hehadash party made clear that this would be a one-time emergency act for the next election, not a permanent return to the system of directly electing the prime minister that existed between 1996 and 2001.

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The Knesset might well back the proposal, especially if the alternative is a third election in less than a year. For one thing, the parties are exhausted. And small parties, both on the left and right, fear they wouldn’t pass the 3.25 percent electoral threshold, while the leaders of some parties might end up losing their positions in an attempt to make their party slates more attractive.

Despite Dery’s trial balloon, Shas officials are saying that the two largest parties – Likud and Kahol Lavan – are the ones that must move the proposal forward. Even though the winner would have failed to form a government in the current round, the fact that the public chose him directly would force the Knesset to unite behind him, in the same way that city council members must unite behind a mayor elected by the people.

At the Anti-Defamation League’s Israel Social Cohesion Summit, former Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked of Hayamin Hehadash mentioned the possibility of a direct election after it was raised during the meeting between Netanyahu and the leaders of other right-wing parties on Monday.

Shaked said Dery’s initiative “is how we prevent these exhausting elections,” adding that the loser would have to understand that the winner would come first in a rotation agreement. “I spoke with a few people from Likud and they said it was a pretty good idea .... It’s an interesting option that certainly needs to be considered seriously,” she added.

If the emergency legislation advances, the Knesset will have to address a long list of technical problems including preparing the voter registry and amending the election funding law and the law governing the Central Elections Committee.

It’s hard to know how an election campaign before a Netanyahu-Gantz standoff would affect the chances of either candidate; other parties’ voters would have to decide which leader they preferred. Today’s clear division into two blocs wouldn’t necessarily mean the voters would split that way; remember the right-wing voters who are disgusted by Netanyahu and in September chose Shaked’s Yamina electoral alliance or Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu.

It’s also not clear that a lessening of the corruption charges against Netanyahu as a result of his pre-indictment hearing would strengthen his support. Alongside voters’ political views, a direct election would force them to make their decision based on the candidates’ character, experience and ability to do the job.