Tensions are running high as June 10, the date of Israel’s presidential elections, approaches. Officials in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office have suggested postponing the elections or even abolishing the institution of the presidency altogether. However, given that officials were debating eliminating political institutions, the more fruitful discussion on political reform would be establishing term limits for its prime ministers. Such a measure would ensure that Israel’s leaders do not accumulate excessive power, promote more alteration in power and conform to democratic norms worldwide.
Knesset member Nitzan Horowitz (Meretz Party), a former prominent Channel 10 journalist, emphasized the importance of term limits when he told Al-Monitor, “Limiting the term of office of elected officials in senior executive positions for two consecutive terms is essential to proper administration functioning. Prime ministers or mayors have broad authority and power. An endless term may create degradation.”
Even within the government’s coalition there is support for this idea. HaBayit HaYehudi Chairwoman Ayelet Shaked’s office told Al-Monitor that she supports limiting the prime minister to only two terms. Anytime Knesset members from these parties on the opposite end of the political spectrum agree is especially noteworthy. Because of the upcoming presidential elections, others were hesitant to respond publicly on such an explosive issue, with Labor Party candidate and Knesset member Binyamin Ben-Eliezer declining to comment.
The threat of a leader becoming more arrogant with prolonged rule can be seen with Netanyahu’s push to reform or dissolve the presidency. Al-Monitor’s Mazal Mualem, Haaretz’s Yossi Verter and others contend that the reason behind Netanyahu’s move is due to his mistrust and personal feud with top Likud Party candidate Reuven Rivlin. It appears unlikely that Netanyahu would try to pull this stunt regarding such a key Israeli political institution if he were in his first term as prime minister, as excessive time in power causes leaders to believe they are above the rules of the political system.
Term limits are also important because they encourage alteration of power for both individuals and political parties. Incumbents hold certain electoral advantages due to high visibility and voter familiarity. Even a handpicked successor often fares much worse than the incumbent. For example, Croatia’s Franjo Tudjman and his party have comfortably controlled the political scene since Croatia’s national independence in 1990. However, when Tudjman died in 2000, his party suffered a painful defeat.
Netanyahu’s dominance in the Israeli political scene is also rooted in his personal stature as a leader. In a Globes May 1 poll, when asked which candidate is most suitable to be the next prime minister, Netanyahu received four times the amount than any other candidate in his party, Likud-Beitenu. If term limits were implemented and Netanyahu were forbidden to run, then the disparity between which candidate would be the best prime minister from Likud-Beitenu and other parties would likely shrink rapidly. This would lead to a better chance of a turnover in party control and a healthier democracy.
The issue of term limits has been discussed in the Israeli context recently. Former opposition leader and Labor Chairwoman Shelly Yachimovich raised the question of term limits for prime ministers only last year. Officials in Netanyahu’s office rejected the idea as “its entire purpose is to prevent Israeli citizens to exercise their will.” Yet, have the people of France, South Korea and the United States — countries with term limits for its leaders — lost their democratic freedoms? The irony is especially poignant because Israel’s president, largely a symbolic post without genuine powers, has a term limit of seven years.
Former Justice Minister Daniel Friedman also argued that Israel is different from most countries with term limits, as Israel’s system of government is a “coalition government in which the prime minister’s power is limited.” But the passing of three critical bills in the same week, just two months ago, including the controversial referendum law and reforming military service for the ultra-Orthodox, demonstrated that Israel’s leaders do not suffer from a power deficit. With the Knesset raising the threshold for small parties to enter parliament while limiting the opposition’s ability to overthrow the government, the prime minister’s authority is not constrained.
Netanyahu’s supporters contend that Israel’s first Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion served for approximately 13 years. However, Israel’s first 29 years were its least democratic as the Labor Party candidate served continuously as prime minister. The eminent political science professor Samuel Huntington explains the importance of turnovers in power for a country transitioning to a stable democracy.
After winning re-election last year for his third term, Netanyahu is beginning his ninth year as prime minister. Polls continue to show Netanyahu as the clear favorite for prime minister if elections were held today. If Netanyahu completes his current term, then he will have sat in the prime minister’s chair for 12 years. Should he win another term — hardly an unthinkable phenomenon — then his period in power would shoot up to 17 years. Is this Vladimir Putin-like longevity really what the Israeli public deserves?