Netanyahu Calls for Direct Election for PM Between Him and Gantz

Kahol Lavan says move is attempt by Netanyahu to deflect attention from indictment in corruption cases ■ Knesset unlikely to approve change in election method as it may dissolve in four days

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Benjamin Netanyahu during a post-election rally, Tel Aviv, September 17, 2019
Benjamin Netanyahu during a post-election rally, Tel Aviv, September 17, 2019Credit: Ofer Vaknin

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Saturday said that he would like Israelis to vote in a direct election and pick between him and his rival, Kahol Lavan leader Benny Gantz. 

"It's still not too late, but if they don't come to their senses and set up a national unity government, there is one more thing we can do to prevent an unnecessary Knesset election: A direct election for the premiership between Benny Gantz and myself," the prime minister said. 

"Kahol Lavan say that they know what the people want, so I'm all for the people deciding and no one else - including the media," he added. 

With four days left until Israeli lawmakers run out of time to pick a candidate from the Knesset who could try to form a governing coalition, Netanyahu said that he has not despaired of the possibility of forming a unity government with Gantz, but that he believes the latter and his party are not interested in that option. 

"In recent weeks I made a big concession. I made every effort to set up a unity government and avoid an unnecessary election. I updated Benny Gantz and others in Kahol Lavan on very sensitive political and intelligence issues... and yet they are not placing the national interests at the top of their priorities. Instead they are prioritizing Yair Lapid's personal fantasy of becoming prime minister," he charged.  

Kahol Lavan slammed Netanyahu's suggestion. "We are busy trying to prevent an expensive and unnecessary election, and not with empty spins to return to a method that has already failed miserably in the past," the party said in an official statement.

"Changing the election method in a snap process could only lead us to the exact same place we are in today, so this is a hollow suggestion, whose sole purpose is to divert the heat from Netanyahu and his three grave corruption cases; he is the only person to blame for dragging the State of Israel to a third election," the statement added.

Naftali Bennett, the chairman of the Hayamin Hehadash Party, which recently merged with Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud, said that he would support a direct election. "A direct election is the only way to make a decision a prevent a third, a fourth and a fifth election," he said after Netanyahu made his remarks.

Direct election won't solve political deadlock

In order to hold a direct election for the premiership, Israeli lawmakers would have to amend the Basic Law on the Government, a move that requires the support of a majority of 61 Knesset members. 

A legal dispute could arise regarding the timing of this move: The Knesset is expected to dissolve on Wednesday if no lawmaker is picked to try and form a government. In that case, the parliament would vote on changing the election method after it has already disbanded, which is problematic from a legal standpoint. The Knesset might have to decide on this move in a matter of days.

A direct election isn't expected to resolve Israel's political crisis, because the composition of the Knesset, and the power struggles within it, will not change.

Netanyahu's Likud assumes that most parties aren't interested in another Knesset election. Labor-Gesher and the Democratic Union are concerned they won't pass the electoral threshold, and Bennett and his partner Ayelet Shaked won't want to risk the possibility that their party would remain outside the Knesset like it did in the April election. Shaked has already declared in the past that she would support holding a direct election for the premiership. 

In recent months, in light of the ongoing political deadlock, the idea to hold a direct election was floated on several occasions. Arye Dery, the chairman of the ultra-Orthodox party Shas, has sought to promote a legal directive that would prevent another election. Yisrael Beiteinu Chairman Avigdor Lieberman presented a plan according to which the elected prime minister wouldn't require a Knesset majority, but clarified that his suggestion is not related to the upcoming election.

Netanyahu himself in the past had claimed that he has no intention to amend the basic law so that it would allow for a direct election. However, during a state visit to Lisbon on Thursday, he told Israeli reporters that this "is an idea that's beginning to seem interesting."