The day after the July 22 birth of Britain’s royal baby, Prince George Alexander Louis of Cambridge, Israeli pundits wrote on social media about how lucky the British are, because they know who is third in line to their throne.
One pundit went further and nastily tweeted that Israelis have no idea who is third in line here – after Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and his wife, Sara.
But the emergency hernia operation Netanyahu endured late Saturday night was no laughing matter.
Although the prime minister was only incapacitated for a few hours, the surgery reminded Israelis that while Netanyahu is healthy, the 63-year-old man Time magazine once crowned “King Bibi” has no successor waiting in the wings.
Unlike former prime minister Ariel Sharon, who gave Ehud Olmert the title vice prime minister, Netanyahu has made a point of never indicating who he saw as his number two. Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon filled in as acting prime minister during Netanyahu’s operation, but three other ministers have also filled in for him over the last few years.
Netanyahu has already bypassed Yitzhak Shamir to become Israel’s second-longest serving prime minister after David Ben-Gurion. The tough decisions he may have to make soon in the diplomatic negotiations with the Palestinians that started this week, and the continued rightward shift in his Likud party could increase the chances that this will be Netanyahu’s final term.
So who has the inside track to become the next occupant of the Prime Minister’s Residence on Jerusalem’s Balfour Street? Although it really is too soon to say, the following 10 politicians have the best chances:
He turned heads when he voted for the release of 100 terrorists from prison last week, after he was one of only three ministers out of 29 who voted against the prisoner exchange that brought home Gilad Schalit two years ago.
Ya’alon mysteriously explained his vote by saying there were “many strategic considerations, which may be revealed in the future.” He was referring to strategic considerations for Israel and not for his own political future, but a shift to the Center could help Ya’alon out politically by making him more of a consensus figure.
Israelis see military credentials, especially those of a former IDF chief of staff, as proof of leadership.
Ya’alon is more cerebral and humble than others who held that post. That humility could be a strength or a weakness.
When he correctly predicted a recent major development in the Middle East, instead of pursuing praise and credit like other politicians would, he asked that it not be printed.
He was not IDF chief of staff and did not advance beyond the rank of sergeant, but the rest of his resumé is very impressive. The only other men alive who can say that they were both foreign minister and finance minister of Israel are Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres.
Shalom was also science minister and deputy defense minister. He holds degrees in law, finance, public policy, and accounting. It also helps that he is married to an heiress and is Sephardi.
After years of fighting, Shalom recently became closer to Netanyahu. That could help position himself to be ready when the time comes for the prime minister to leave.
It must be kept in mind that Likud activists could play a serious role in deciding Israel’s next prime minister. No one is more popular with Likud activists than Sa’ar, who won the last two primaries for the party’s Knesset slate.
Sa’ar appeals to both the Right and Left. On the one hand, he opposes a Palestinian state but on the other, he voted for the prisoner release, endorsed the current diplomatic process and was invited to speak at the official memorial ceremonies for former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin.
His marriage to a popular TV anchorwoman helped endear him to the masses. In a few months, the country’s front pages are expected to be graced by pictures of the closest thing Israel has to a royal baby.
He has been out of politics since last October, yet Israelis still think of him every month: When they see their cellphone bill. Kahlon’s reforms as communications minister have helped Israeli families cut their cellphone expenses by hundreds of shekels each month.
Staying out of the current government could help Kahlon, by enabling him to avoid responsibility for socioeconomic cuts and diplomatic failures. He has made clear that he will run in the next election, but his poor relationship with Netanyahu makes it unlikely that it will be with Likud if the prime minister still heads the party.
Kahlon’s Sephardi ethnicity and poor background will help him, as will his ever-present smile.
Premature political eulogies are often regretted, and many have been written in recent months for Lapid. The eulogies are correct in that Lapid’s popularity will not rise in the months ahead, because the cuts he made will start hitting the public’s pocketbook.
But Israelis have very short memories. As long as the economy recovers, Lapid will be thanked later on. He has plenty of time ahead of the next election, whose timing he will have a lot of say in deciding.
His diplomatic policies have smartly moved rightward. Among the candidates on the Center-Left, Lapid certainly has the most charisma. He also has the highest chance among them to become prime minister.
Labor’s fate in the next general election could be decided next week. That is when Herzog is expected to decide whether he is running for the party chairmanship.
His run is only definite if he persuades all other challengers to party leader Shelly Yacimovich to sit the race out and back him. It will be difficult to defeat an incumbent party leader if the opposition to her is divided.
If Herzog can beat Yacimovich in the November 21 Labor primary, he can win the support of voters who backed other Center-Left parties in the last election who were turned off by Yacimovich. A mass exodus of voters from Yesh Atid, combined with Likud fielding a weak candidate, could propel the worldly son of former president Chaim Herzog to the Prime Minister’s Office.
She is on this list, because she is the leader of the third-largest party and the opposition’s candidate for prime minister in no-confidence votes. But she has a long way to go to become well-rounded enough to be considered a serious candidate for prime minister.
Yacimovich is making strides. She is making her voice heard on diplomatic issues, meeting with top international dignitaries like UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, and speaking at next month’s J-Street Conference in Washington.
She also has used political maneuvers to take over the institutions in her party and make it very difficult for anyone to defeat her.
Winning the support of the public is much harder, but she has an outside chance.
Like Lapid, she has been eulogized politically. Polls do not show her party passing the electoral threshold.
But if Livni can prove the skeptics wrong by reaching an agreement with the Palestinians that a majority of Israelis would support in a referendum, her popularity could skyrocket, and the Center-Left could unite behind her in the next election.
Even if he gets cleared of all the remaining charges against him, Olmert will never be able to shake off his breach of trust conviction and corrupt image. But as the New York mayoral race has proven, anyone can make a political comeback.
Olmert’s good relations with the top players across the Israeli political spectrum could help him unify the Center-Left in ways other potential candidates cannot. He could build a dream team of candidates like Kadima tried to, and use it to make a serious run at his old job of prime minister.
No such list will ever be complete without Peres, until long after he is buried at Mount Herzl. And even after that, there will be politicians who will worry that he is still contemplating a comeback.
Peres has ruled out returning to politics after his term ends next summer. But if enough political forces plead with him to return, and he caves in to that pressure, it will not be the first time in Peres’s extremely long career that he has broken a promise.
Even in the unlikely scenario that the next election will be held on time in November 2017, Peres will be only 94. But has he ever really aged?
Potential candidates not on the list:
The case against him in the Harpaz Affair has been widened and strengthened. Former prime minister Ehud Barak is determined to prevent Ashkenazi from having a political career. It’s not looking good for him.
Even if he gets cleared of all charges against him in the fall and returns to the Foreign Ministry, his prospects do not look good. The MKs recently elected to the institutions in Likud will block any merger with Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu, which will prevent him from becoming the candidate of a potential ruling party.
Bayit Yehudi leader Naftali Bennett has the same problem. He also has to prove that he can keep his own party united before he can be considered a serious prime ministerial candidate.
Despite Time magazine’s coronation of the prime minister, Israel is not a monarchy. Netanyahu’s eldest son has completed his freshman year at Hebrew University, where he has become politically active in the campus’s right-wing groups. He is said to share his father’s views and charisma, so maybe one day – but no, not soon.