Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has just gone on trial on charges of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust.
The fact that a sitting prime minister will be forced to defend himself in a court of law on criminal charges is amazing in and of itself. Personally, I am not aware of any other country where the current prime minister had been successfully put into a defendant’s dock. This very fact speaks a lot about Israel’s commitment to the rule of law: no one, not even the country’s leader is above it.
As this trial is ongoing, I would like to turn the attention towards the necessity of having a prime minister at all. In the past, I have argued that limiting the powers of the Knesset in favor of instruments of direct democracy would benefit Israel in many ways, not least by reducing the temptation for the politicians to do everything to gain the control of the Knesset – a less powerful body would become a lesser prize in the game of politics.
In this article, I would like to argue that the office of the prime minister is entirely unnecessary. I would like to pose a question: what exactly does the prime minister do, which cannot be accomplished otherwise?
Basic Laws of Israel vest the executive authority with the government as a whole, not the prime minister specifically. That is, government regulations are adopted by a vote in the government (or in the Security Cabinet). The prime minister specifically has the following functions:
- The (future) Prime Minister forms the Government.
- The Prime Minister can suggest a co-optation of a new Minister to the Government.
- The Prime Minister can remove a Minister.
- The Prime Minister chairs Government meetings.
- The Prime Minister conveys certain messages to the Knesset.
- The Prime Minister can request the President of the State of Israel to dissolve the Knesset.
- The Prime Minister can, in a case when the Knesset cannot convene in time, declare an emergency, and make emergency regulations.
- The Prime Minister can have other duties assigned to them by law.
- Most importantly – each Minister is responsible to the Prime Minister and the Government is collectively responsible to the Knesset. This is achieved by the fact that the Prime Minister, unlike other Ministers, must be a Member of the Knesset, thus ensuring government accountability to the Knesset.
- The Prime Minister has a role in selecting the Chief of Staff (the IDF Supreme Commander).
I would like to show that the functions outlined above do not necessarily need to be performed by a Prime Minister, and instead can be performed by other bodies.
The formation of the Government can be done by the Knesset itself, by electing relevant Ministers to their positions. This is how Switzerland elects its Federal Council, and their system has worked very well so far. Furthermore, even in Israel, we have the beginnings of such a system. I refer to the ability of the Knesset to suggest a candidate for the position of the Prime Minister to the President, exactly what has happened when Netanyahu was trying to form the 35th Government of Israel just a few weeks ago. In a system without a Prime Minister, the President of the State would also become unnecessary, thus saving us quite a lot of money (the main function of the President is to appoint the Prime Minister; the Government could function as a collective head of state, as it is done in Switzerland).
If such a system would be adopted, the Knesset would elect and dismiss all ministers, and thus Prime Minister’s duties outlined in points 2 and 3 would become irrelevant.
The Knesset could also elect a specific Minister from the government to chair Cabinet meetings. Such a role would be purely administrative, and it could also rotate among the Ministers so that no one feels left out. The same person could perform the duties outlined in point 5.
The Prime Minister has absolutely no business dissolving the Knesset – the entire Government is subordinate to the Knesset, including the Prime Minister. If the Knesset cannot govern a country, it can dissolve itself perfectly well, which has already happened in the past. Furthermore, as I have outlined in one of my previous articles, the people should be able to call for a referendum on the dissolution of the Knesset.
An ability to declare an emergency when the Knesset cannot convene should be exercised by the entire Government, or at least by the Security Cabinet. The ability of a single person to declare emergency has significant potential for abuse and does not sit well with the principles of good governance. It is important to remember, that the Government does not need to convene physically to make its decisions – as we have found out during the COVID-19 pandemic, they are perfectly able to make decisions over the phone.
Other duties assigned to the Prime Minister by law can be easily distributed among the Ministers by the very same law. As a matter of fact, existing Basic Laws allow assignment of extra duties to the Ministers by law.
The next point is remarkably simple – each minister should be responsible to the Knesset only. The fact that ministers are responsible to the Knesset and to the Prime Minister only serves to blur the lines of responsibility and decreases the transparency of the government.
The Chief of Staff of the IDF can be appointed to their position either by the Government on the advice of the Defence Minister or by the Knesset.
My readers may be keen to accuse me of omitting the crucial function of the Prime Minister – to lead the Government and the country. However, in what way is that leadership expressed? Let us analyse how an Israeli Prime Minister leads the Government.
Israel uses a modified version of the Westminster system of government. The modification is profoundly serious: in Westminster-style Parliaments, elections are conducted in territorial constituencies, usually single-member. This often results in single-party governments, where the Prime Minister is truly the leader. Israel, however, uses proportional representation, as is appropriate for such a heterogeneous state. Here, governments are formed through complex negotiations, and the Prime Minister cannot do anything without the permission of their coalition partners. Can this be called leadership? I do not think so.
Finally, I would like to discuss my entire reason for abolishing the position of the Prime Minister. My previous arguments only concerned the reasons why we do not necessarily need one, but not why we would be better off without one.
Israel is, using Arendt Lijphart’s terminology, an extremely cleft society. Israel is divided along religious, ethnic, and social lines. Each group is represented by a specific political force. There can be only one Prime Minister. Only one political group can claim the position. Every time someone becomes the Prime Minister, everyone else does not. They lose, and their loss exacerbates already existing social tensions.
By abolishing the position of the Prime Minister, we would remove that ultimate prize. No one would get to claim it, and no one would lose it. Imagine the current situation if Benjamin Netanyahu were a simple Minister, even if very influential. Would right-wing parties claim that the entire right is on trial in Israel? Probably not. Would the left base their entire campaign on the slogan of “anyone but Bibi”, instead of concentrating more on the actual problems? Also, probably not.
I am sure that everyone can now recognize what I am proposing – a directorial system of government, as it is practised in Switzerland. And I have just one thing to say about this – which country is governed better: Israel or Switzerland? Which system reminds you of a Middle Eastern market, and which – of a Swiss clock?