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Could Netanyahu be banned from running for PM again?

Members of the new coalition are pushing forward legislation that would effectively ban Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from running again for the job.
MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP via Getty Images

Israel’s new government is taking giant steps forward. But some of its architects are not content with just replacing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and are taking steps to pass legislation that would prevent him from running again should their government fall.

The effort involves changing the country’s semi-constitutional Basic Law governing the Knesset. According to proposed amendment, a prime minister would only be able to serve in the position for eight consecutive years. Anyone who does serve for that long would have a four-year cooling-off period before being eligible for reelection.

What this means in practical terms is that Netanyahu, who served as prime minister for 12 consecutive years, would not be allowed to run again for the position for another four years. The arguments for this amendment, as they appear in the law, include the claim that an overly long term as prime minister “is a shocking failure of democracy that must be addressed.” It goes on, “The proposed law makes use of the ‘cooling-off’ mechanism common in Israel’s constitutional system to give someone who was at the center of power for an especially long time a chance to cool off from additional political activity for a set amount of time, and to ensure a turnover in the role of prime minister.”

Evidently, this is specifically personal law intended to neutralize Netanyahu, who plans to remain involved as chairman of the Likud and head of the opposition.

The law, which is being pushed forward by the New Hope Party, would mean that if the new government falls apart before its four-year term is up and the Knesset is dissolved, Netanyahu would not be eligible to run for prime minister in the next election. If this becomes the case, Netanyahu would presumably have little interest in bringing the new government down.  

It is no coincidence that the right-wing New Hope party is behind the initiative. Its chair, Gideon Saar, ran against Netanyahu for the Likud leadership. When he was defeated he quit the party and has since become a key figure in the coalition that brought Netanyahu down.

In the new government, Saar will serve as justice minister and deputy prime minister. One senior member of the new coalition told Al-Monitor that Saar is convinced that Netanyahu will lose his base of support in the Likud. The source estimated that in the near future, Saar will be able to return to the Likud in a leadership capacity and eventually run for prime minister.

Another political figure who supports this law is the head of Yisrael Beitenu, Avigdor Liberman, who is slated to serve as the new government’s finance minister. He is also a bitter rival of Netanyahu who spent the past two and a half years trying to remove him from office.

There has been an uproar in Israeli politics, particularly in the Likud and on the right, since the proposed law was revealed. Many consider it a disturbing effort to prevent a popular political rival from running for office. In an attempt to minimize the damage, Yamina has already said that it would vote against the law in its current form.

Nevertheless, the proposed legislation has not been removed from the new government’s agenda. The coalition agreements will not be published until June 11, ahead of its swearing-in on June 13. Still, it is evident to all parties that such a bill might be overturned by the Supreme Court.

With that in mind, one of the main questions in the debate over the bill is when it will go into effect and whether it will affect Netanyahu’s previous terms, points that will certainly affect its legal validity. The leaders of the coalition agree that they must reach an understanding about by tomorrow at the very latest if they are to include the law in the coalition agreements.

Netanyahu has been fighting against the law ever since it was disclosed to the public, calling it “dictatorial.” As he put it in a revealing tweet, “After Bennett deceived his own electorate by transferring votes from right to left only to appoint himself prime minister with 6 mandates, he is now proposing laws that don't exist in any democracy in the world, with the aim of disqualifying Prime Minister Netanyahu from running for Knesset and thus taking down the right-wing leader. Bennett crosses every red line in his mad quest for the prime minister's seat at any cost. PM Netanyahu fights Iran while Bennett and Lapid propose laws from Iran.”

It is not just the right warning that the new law runs counter to democratic values. Haim Ramon, a former justice minister, identifies with the left and supported the creation of the new government. Nevertheless, in an interview with Al-Monitor, he offered sharp criticism of the law, calling it “intolerable retroactive legislation that goes against all the rules. It is not only retroactive, either; it is also personal.”

Ramon went on to argue that the law shows us that the new coalition, which was formed to return the country to a path of normalcy, is acting undemocratically against a political rival. He said it only proves how weak Netanyahu’s rivals are. They don’t want people to be able to vote for whomever they want, because they still don’t believe that they can defeat Netanyahu at the polling booth. “It is disgraceful to see people who claim to be so just and moral even considering this kind of legislation.”

Ramon does not believe that the law will pass, but the very idea of it terrifies him: “It is impossible, but the very fact that people who claim to represent change, morality, justice and democracy are considering such a law is very disconcerting. It shows a double standard. It is hypocritical. Enough already. Leave Netanyahu alone. He is the head of the opposition. In short, these are draconian measure that do not exist anywhere else in the world.”

We have already mentioned Netanyahu’s tweet, which was made in English, quite unusual for him and Israeli internal politics. His goal seems to be to get the international press to express criticism and doubt about the way the new government is being run before it even takes power.

It all signals that Netanyahu plans to remain active in the international arena as head of the opposition. He already heads the country’s largest party, and all polls show him as Israel’s most popular leader. His associates indicate that he is now planning to form a shadow government and challenge the government that replaced him, as part of a larger effort to return to office.

His rivals realize it. They know that even after he has been removed, Netanyahu will still be their greatest threat, both individually and together. As of the afternoon of June 13, Netanyahu will be head of the opposition for the third time in his career.

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