Israel's Netanyahu calls for direct prime minister vote

Jerusalem (AFP) –

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called Tuesday for direct polls to choose Israel's next leader, as he struggles to form a coalition following four general elections in less than two years.

"We need a rapid referendum to get out of the political deadlock," Netanyahu told reporters. "Let the public decide who will be the next prime minister."

Netanyahu's rightwing Likud won 30 seats in elections held in March, making his party the largest in Israel's 120-seat parliament.

He has support from ultra-Orthodox parties and an alliance of hardline nationalist factions, but has not been able to cobble together a 61-seat majority.

Challengers to Netanyahu, including Yair Lapid of the centrist Yesh Atid party, are waiting in the wings to form a government to replace Israel's longest-serving leader, who has been in office for 12 consecutive years.

On Sunday, Lapid proposed a unity government comprising parties from the right, centre and left to oust Netanyahu.

Should Israel hold direct elections, Netanyahu could thwart his challengers and remain in charge.

However, Assaf Shapira and Amir Fuchs of the Israel Democracy Institute think-tank said direct elections could create a new impasse.

The last such direct election, held in 2001, "made it difficult for the government to pursue and advance a coherent policy", they wrote in a joint paper.

"The disproportionate power held by smaller parties meant that the government operated under constant fear of early elections."

Times of Israel political correspondent Tal Schneider predicted Netanyahu's effort would fail.

Direct elections for prime minister would require 61 legislators to vote to change Israeli election law.

"If [Netanyahu] had 61 votes then he would have a government," she said.

Netanyahu's efforts come as his trial on corruption charges moves forward in a Jerusalem court.