In Bid to End Political Stalemate, Netanyahu Ally Floats Direct Vote for Prime Minister

Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis
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Shas party leader Arye Dery at his party's offices in Jerusalem last month.
Shas party leader Arye Dery at his party's offices in Jerusalem last month.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis

Shas party leader Arye Dery is seeking to pass legislation that would resolve Israel’s electoral stalemate through the direct election of the prime minister. Shas Knesset member Michael Malkieli introduced the bill on Monday that would provide for such a direct election. 

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave his blessing several days ago to the effort at a meeting with Dery, the interior minister, sources involved in the initiative said.

However, a senior politician involved in the legislative effort acknowledged that the bill is unlikely to resolve the ongoing political deadlock, calling it "a trick without political or legal prospects."

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Shas is also attempting to reach across-the-board agreement with the other parties in the Knesset to back the move, enabling a new government to be formed without holding another Knesset election – which would be the fifth in two and a half years.

Dery also presented the proposal to the head of the Yamina party, Naftali Bennett, in an attempt to enlist his support as well. Bennett has not yet provided a response, but he did ask Netanyahu about what he thought of it.

Yamina leader Naftali Bennett at a meeting of his Knesset faction this month.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

In 2019, after Netanyahu and Kahol Lavan leader Benny Gantz failed to form a coalition following the second round of elections, Bennett supported the direct election of the prime minister, calling it the only way to head off additional rounds of elections. Dery met on Sunday with Bennett and the two discussed possible ways of forming a right-wing government.

Shas officials argued the prospects for passage of the legislation are high because many parties would expect to get fewer Knesset seats, or none at all, if a new election were held – and would therefore prefer to support a vote limited to the election of a prime minister. In addition to securing Bennett’s support, Shas hopes to enlist support from New Hope party leader Gideon Sa’ar and from parties such as Meretz and Labor, which Shas officials say would find it difficult to replicate their showing in March’s election if another round of election were held.

Prime Minister Netanyahu, who was tapped by Israeli President Reuven Rivlin to form a government, has until May 4 to do so. If he fails, the president has the authority to give him a two-week extension, to call on another party leader to do so or to entrust the Knesset itself with attempting to coalesce around a Knesset member who can form a government.

According to the Shas bill filed on Monday, the election for prime minister would be held within 30 days of the bill's passage. Candidates for prime minister would first have to secure endorsements from at least 20 Knesset members. 

The bill requires that the winning candidate for prime minister secure at least 40 percent of the vote. If no candidate receives the 40 percent, a runoff election would be held two weeks after the first round between the two top candidates.

It's doubtful that the Shas bill would resolve the current political stalemate, however because it doesn't provide the newly elected prime minister with the means to form a governing coalition. If Netanahu were elected, he would be forced to seek to form a government with the same Knesset members whom he has so far failed to bring on board to form a majority coalition.

The Shas initiative is not new. Dery attempted to advance it a number of times over the past two years in light of the continued failure to form a stable government – but Netanyahu had refused to support it until now. Similar proposals were floated by Likud legislators over the past two years. Likud Knesset members, including Shlomo Karhi, introduced two such bills, but they failed to advance through the legislative process.

The Likud bills limited candidates for prime minister to members of the Knesset and required that a candidate receive at least 50 percent of the vote to be elected. The legislation would also have expanded the number of Knesset seats by 12 to 132, handing them to the governing coalition.

The additional Knesset members would have provided “the tie-breaker enabling the prime minister elected directly to form a government that can govern,” it was explained. “The coalition parties would receive an additional 12 seats to be divided proportionately among the parties that make up the coalition.”

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