Politics: Prime ministers in waiting?

Seven would-be successors for Netanyahu, though not yet; most of the Right would be too scared to try to unseat PM.

November 19, 2010 16:42
PM Binyamin Netanyahu

Netanyahu sweating 311. (photo credit: Courtesy)

Some settler leaders vowed this week to end Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s political career following his capitulation to the demands of US President Barack Obama’s administration for a renewed moratorium on construction in Judea and Samaria.

But they realize that Netanyahu is strong politically and that he is not currently being challenged seriously by anyone in his party. And most of the Right would be too scared to try to unseat Netanyahu, because the last time they did that, they brought the Left to power.

Opposition leader Tzipi Livni’s Kadima party beats Likud in some polls, but none show her attracting enough support for the Center-Left bloc to unseat Netanyahu in the next election. So odds are that Netanyahu will remain in the Prime Minister’s Office beyond his current term, unless he commits a major error or a new political knight in shining armor suddenly appears.

Nevertheless, one of the questions that is asked most often to political analysts is about Netanyahu’s potential successors – about which politicians are future prime ministerial material.

When compiling such a list, it is easy to follow fads. But neither journalist Yair Lapid nor IDF Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi should be on a serious list of future contenders.

Neither, for the foreseeable future at least, should Avigdor Lieberman. The leader of Israel Beiteinu, which won 15 seats in the last elections, Lieberman is certainly popular among immigrants from the former Soviet Union and voters to the right of the Likud. A former director-general of the Prime Minister’s Office in Binyamin Netanyahu’s first term as prime minister, he is pessimistic about the peace process with the Palestinians, saying Israel should be working on long-term solutions rather than rushing to reach an agreement within a year. But he faces possible indictment over corruption allegations.

That leaves the following seven potential Netanyahu successors – listed in alphabetical order – with the best chances of occupying the office, come the day.

Tzipi Livni: There is no doubt that the country would be ready for its second female prime minister – after Golda Meir. Livni beat Netanyahu in the mandate count in last year’s election. Since then, she has listened to the sage advice of her strategists to remain out of Netanyahu’s government and instead offer an alternative from the opposition.

But Livni would need to restore relations with haredi parties to have any chance of forming the next government. To that end, she has recently made an effort to build ties with possible future Shas leaders Aryeh Deri and Ariel Atias.

Shaul Mofaz: With experience as defense minister and chief of General Staff, he has the right qualifications for future leadership. With an image as being more to the right than Livni and with his better relations with the religious parties, he could be a better candidate for Kadima than Livni. But she firmly controls the party, and if she defeats Mofaz a second time, his political career could be over. Staying out of the next primary and waiting in the wings to succeed Livni after she would lose to Netanyahu could be the best strategy for him.

Shimon Peres: Lists of potential prime ministers have included him for the last four decades. He has said that he does not intend to return to politics when he finishes his term as president in 2014 at the age of 90, but he has denied intentions to enter elections before, only to join the fray at the last minute.

Israeli voters traditionally do not see age as an obstacle.

If the timing works out and the people and the polls call for Peres to come back and lead, it is safe to say that the country’s elder statesman would oblige.

Gideon Sa’ar: As Netanyahu’s number two in the Likud, Sa’ar has made a point of not flexing his political muscles and using his time as education minister to build his reputation as the consummate professional. He has been loyal to Netanyahu and has refused repeated requests to challenge the prime minister from the Right and Left. Sa’ar is a smart politician and will continue to build himself politically at his own pace. But his current battles with the haredim could hurt his chances, because they tend to be kingmakers.

Silvan Shalom: The only potential candidate who has been foreign minister, finance minister, vice premier, science minister and deputy defense minister, he easily is the most qualified successor on paper.

But Netanyahu’s loyalists in the Likud will do anything possible to prevent his advancement, and they remain the majority in the party. Shalom needs to handle himself smartly and be careful not to appear to be too vengeful to Netanyahu, despite not being given a senior portfolio when Netanyahu formed his government. If Shalom does, he could still be Netanyahu’s heir apparent.

Yuval Steinitz: The Finance Ministry has traditionally been a political burial ground, but that changed when Netanyahu used it as a springboard to resurrect his career. The prime minister surprised many by giving his ally Steinitz such a plum portfolio for his first cabinet position. Netanyahu would surprise no one if he chooses to promote him again in his next term to the Foreign Ministry, where the English-speaking Steinitz would be a natural fit. Then, the sky would be the limit for him.

Moshe Ya’alon: The former chief of General Staff could gain experience in a top portfolio if Labor, as expected, leaves the coalition ahead of the next election. In that case, Ya’alon is expected to become defense minister – a post he could use to groom himself to be Netanyahu’s successor. He is already the favored candidate of the settlers. A deep thinker, his ideology is the closest to Netanyahu’s, and he, unlike Netanyahu, has remained loyal to it. The question is whether he, too, would become more pragmatic if the Prime Minister’s Office was at stake.

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