Vice and deputy prime minister: What do they mean?

The ambiguity between the definitions of Israeli government titles clarified.

By
March 30, 2013 23:33
4 minute read.
Netanyahu sits with his cabinet in 2009.

Bibi cabinet 2009 370. (photo credit: REUTERS)

In Israel the distinction can be confusing. In addition to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, the outgoing 32nd government included vice prime ministers Moshe Ya’alon and Silvan Shalom for the complete period from March 31, 2009, to March 2013 and Shaul Mofaz from May 9, 2012, to July 19, 2012. In addition there were four deputy prime ministers: Ehud Barak, Dan Meridor, Eliyahu Yishai and until he resigned as foreign minister on December 18, 2012, Avigdor Liberman.

One may well wonder what the words “vice” and “deputy” mean in the above context.

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The Oxford dictionary makes little if any distinction between the positions of “deputy” and “vice.” It defines a deputy as a person whose immediate superior is a senior figure within an organization and who is empowered to act as a substitute for this superior. The word “vice” is defined as next in rank to somebody and able to represent them or act for them.

When used in a particular context however, vice takes on a more specific meaning. For example the Oxford dictionary defines a vice president as an official or executive ranking below and deputizing for a president, as in the vice president of the World Bank. By deputizing, a vice president appears to be no different from a deputy president.

The dictionary defines “deputize” as acting or speaking temporarily on behalf of someone else.

IN VIEW of the possibility that the confusion in distinguishing the between the English meanings of vice prime minister and deputy prime minister may result from misinterpretation of the Hebrew titles, it is worth checking the official Hebrew designations on the government website.

This, however, doesn’t throw much additional light.



The web site refers to a vice prime minister as mishneh le rosh hamemshala and to a deputy prime minister as segan rosh hamemshala. The Babylon translator describes both “segan” and “mishneh” as “vice or deputy.” (Rosh hamemshala is Hebrew for prime minister).

One may expect that a deputy or vice prime minister is the person who takes the position of acting prime minister when the prime minister is temporarily or permanently absent in the same manner as the vice captain of a football team would do. This is the case in the US where the vice president automatically succeeds the president, but it is interesting to note that there was not always clarity on this issue due to ambiguous wording in the Constitution, which does not expressly state whether the vice president becomes the president or merely acting president on succeeding the president.

IT WAS not until February 23, 1967, that the ambiguity was removed by the 25th Amendment which establishes procedures for filling a vacancy in the offices of the president and vice president.

In Britain and Northern Ireland the deputy prime minister (currently Nick Clegg) is appointed at the discretion of the prime minister and does not automatically succeed the latter should he be incapacitated or resign.

The German vice-chancellor acts in place of the chancellor in his/her absence by heading cabinet meetings, but does not automatically become chancellor for the rest of the term if the chancellor dies or becomes unable to fulfill his or her duties. The president asks a minister to fulfill the chancellor’s duties until the parliament elects a new chancellor.

In Israel the position is clarified in a note on the government website listing the members of the Knesset, which note states unambiguously: “The position of deputy or vice prime minister is not an official job, rather an honorary position.”

Succeeding a prime minister in Israel does not fall on either a deputy or vice prime minister but on a third classification, namely acting prime minister, who may be appointed in terms of clause 5(d) of the Basic Law: The Government (2001). An acting prime minister, if appointed, takes the place of the prime minister if he or she is temporarily incapacitated for up to 100 consecutive days while the incumbent is still in office. If the prime minister dies or becomes permanently incapacitated, the cabinet appoints an interim prime minister to serve until a new government is formed. Currently no acting prime minister has been appointed and unlike vice and deputy prime ministers, there can be only one acting prime minister.

It will be recalled that in 2003, Ariel Sharon appointed Ehud Olmert as acting prime minister and the latter acted in this capacity following Sharon’ stroke in 2006 during the election campaign period. When Sharon’s party won, Olmert continued as acting prime minister and soon thereafter when Sharon reached 100 consecutive days of incapacitation the interim government elected Olmert interim prime minister.

The writer is a founding member of the International Coalition of Hasbara Volunteers.


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