Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

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16 Kislev 5761 - December 13, 2000 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








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Knesset Turmoil: Will there be Knesset Elections? Will Netanyahu Run for Prime Minister?
by M. Plaut and Yated Ne'eman Staff

Almost everyone expects a contest for the office of prime minister between Ehud Barak and Binyamin Netanyahu, but it remains unclear whether Israelis should prepare for special direct elections for prime minister in 60 days (perhaps even without Netanyahu) or, following the passing of the bill next week dissolving the Knesset, for general elections in 90 days or sometime in May (almost certainly with Netanyahu).

The Likud Central Committee was scheduled to meet Tuesday night at the party's headquarters in Tel Aviv to agree on the rules for the internal contest for the leadership of the movement between Netanyahu and the current Likud chairman, MK Ariel Sharon. The only other possible contender is MK Silvan Shalom, who has not yet announced his intentions.

Sharon would like to see party primaries held next Monday, before a decision is reached in the Knesset on whether Netanyahu will be able to run for prime minister. Netanyahu's supporters want the primaries to be held on December 19, after the Knesset decides on whether to dissolve itself or alter the Basic Law to allow a nonmember of Knesset to run. Either possibility would allow Netanyahu to run for prime minister.

Sources close to Netanyahu say that he may not run just for prime minister if the Knesset does not vote in favor of its own dissolution, since Netanyahu would like to see a Knesset more weighted towards the right than the current one. This has been one of the major arguments in favor of holding general Knesset elections: if Barak wins a special prime ministerial election he would be stuck with the same deadlocked Knesset, and any opponent would probably also be equally hard-pressed to work with the Knesset. It makes more sense to elect both the prime minister and the Knesset he must work with, at the same time.

Shas is said to be firmly committed to allowing Netanyahu to run one way or the other. It is working to alter the Basic Law on the Government to allow Netanyahu to compete, an alternative that it prefers to holding new Knesset elections in which its strength would probably decrease. However, it is said that Shas would vote to dissolve the Knesset if the change in the Basic Law cannot be passed.

Shas seems willing to take a chance and lose a number of its 17 Knesset seats in order to see Barak ousted from office.

Support for changing the basic law in order to allow Netanyahu to run seems to exist across the political spectrum. In addition to the members of the opposition, One Israel MKs Weizman Shiri, Collette Avital, Salah Tarif and Sofa Landver, offered their support to the bill. However Meretz MKs and others said that they will oppose alterations to the Basic Law.

Supporters of Benjamin Netanyahu in the Likud are pushing for the bill calling for the dissolution of the Knesset and the holding of general elections, since Netanyahu could then participate without any difficulty.

It was also decided on Monday that the Knesset will go into recess on December 21 and will hold no further deliberations until after the special elections.


Binyamin Netanyahu announced his candidacy late Sunday with a verbal assault on the policies of Ehud Barak, who now trails Netanyahu in public opinion polls by a margin greater than the 12 percentage points by which he won in the elections in May 1999.

However, unless the Knesset acts to change existing election laws, Netanyahu's withdrawal from the Knesset after his May, 1999 defeat could keep him competing against Barak in elections to be held as soon as early February.

Barak surprised everyone with a surprise announcement last Saturday night that he would resign Sunday, paving the way for special elections for the premiership within 60 days. According to the current law, the resignation of the prime minister requires new elections within 60 days for a prime minister, but the Knesset remains in office. In the special prime ministerial elections, only sitting members of Knesset may compete. Barak's move was widely seen as a ploy to block internal opposition within his party (since the time is too short to allow effective opposition) and also to block out Netanyahu, his most difficult opponent. If elections take place in 60 days, the deadline for submitting candidacy will fall on December 25, less than two weeks from now.

Netanyahu, taking the news limelight less than 24 hours later, said that he is reentering politics to run for prime minister. He appealed to Knesset members to put aside their own fears about reelection and to vote to dissolve the parliament bringing about general elections in which Netanyahu could run without any problem. With Shas, there are thought to be 65 votes for dissolution of the Knesset.

Shas is clear about its preference for Netanyahu over Barak, but fears that general Knesset elections could weaken its current parliamentary strength. Shas last year won 17 seats in the 120-seat house, just short of the Likud's 19 seats.

Opinion polls indicate that Shas would decline this time round, with some of its voters returning to the Likud. However -- and this is a significant "however" -- opinion polls have always underestimated the strength of Shas, often by a wide margin.

Netanyahu enjoys almost magical popularity in his party, and is viewed as a much more attractive candidate than the party's current leader, aging warhorse Ariel Sharon.

Likud officials hoped to bring the dissolution bill for its final readings by Tuesday.

In 1996, Netanyahu was the first Israeli leader elected under a new system of direct elections for the prime minister. Until then, the leader of the party winning the most votes in elections for the Knesset acceded to the top job.

Following are some of the dates proposed for the timetable of elections in Israel. The situation is very fluid and these could easily change several times:

Sunday, December 17 - Likud to hold primaries to choose its candidate for prime minister.

December 18 - Knesset committee debates the final form of a bill to disband Knesset.

December 19 - Likud optimists hope to bring bill to dissolve Knesset for its final approval.

Monday, December 25 (28 Kislev, 4th candle of Chanukah) - Deadline for submitting candidacy for prime ministerial election.

Wednesday, January 17 - Campaign broadcast advertising begins, 21 days prior to election.

Tuesday, February 6 (13 Shvat) - Election day, 60 days after Barak's resignation. If the Knesset is dissolved, elections may also be held this day, or 30 days later, or in May.


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