Prime Minister Netanyahu, Tzachi Braverman, and Yisrael Katz at security cabinet meeting.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
It was then-Knesset speaker Avraham Burg who first compared Shimon Peres to an evergreen tree – stately and impressive but nothing can grow underneath.
Since then, that comparison has been made many times by those in the Likud about Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In fact, the comparison actually fits Netanyahu better, because at least Peres tried to build up future leadership under him, while Netanyahu kills any potential future threat.
Moshe Kahlon was once his No. 2 in the Likud. He’s in a different party now, due to his personal disputes with Netanyahu. Former Netanyahu aides Naftali Bennett and Avigdor Liberman head different parties as well, instead of working underneath him.
Gideon Sa’ar never left the Likud, but he left his post as interior minister and took a break from politics, realizing that after being No. 2 on the Likud Knesset candidates list, there is no way to go up until Netanyahu leaves.
The assumption all along has been that the Likud needs Netanyahu more than Netanyahu needs the Likud. No potential successor could measure up to him. No one even tried to run against him in the last Likud leadership race.
After all, he is an internationally respected statesman. One of the heads of an international credit agency even recently said that Netanyahu is the only leader in the world who gets along very well with both US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
But there is also another theory that remains untested. Perhaps Netanyahu actually needs the Likud more than the party needs him. Maybe the party would even be better off without him.
That theory was substantiated by a groundbreaking Statnet poll broadcast Sunday night on Channel 10, which found that Netanyahu’s departure from politics due to his criminal investigations could end up helping the Likud.
According to the poll, if an election were held now and Netanyahu remained the head of the Likud, the party would win 27 Knesset seats. But if the Likud were led by one of its other leaders, it would win four additional seats and end up with 31, one more than Netanyahu won at the helm of the party two years ago.
When asked who would be most fit to lead the Right if Netanyahu does not run, 23% of respondents chose Sa’ar, who fared much better than any other candidate. But Bayit Yehudi officials were quick to point out that Bennett actually got slightly higher support than Sa’ar among respondents who voted for the Likud or Bayit Yehudi.
What the poll indicated was that Netanyahu damages the Likud. Even though he is innocent until proven guilty, he brings the Likud an image of corruption that it tried so hard to rid itself of, following a Knesset list that featured the daughter of a mobster, a minister’s driver, an MK who voted twice by mistake, and a deputy minister who paid for her voters to stay in a fancy hotel.
Netanyahu also harms the Likud with his personality. It is no secret that it is difficult to get along with the man.
Then-US president Barack Obama and then-French president Nicolas Sarkozy said it in 2011, when they did not know their microphones were on. Nearly every Likud minister would say the same to an intermediary they thought they could trust.
When Netanyahu goes – and it will happen sooner or later, because no one lives forever – Kahlon, Liberman and Bennett can come back. The Right may no longer be divided into different parties whose difference of opinion on key issues is minimal.
Sa’ar maintains a good relationship with all three exiled party leaders, and he has been careful to speak only positively about Netanyahu since he returned to politics in April. He wrote on Facebook Sunday that he has worked well with the prime minister and there is no reason for him to resign.
“It has not been easy for me as a Likud member, a citizen of the country, and a partner in the Right’s path, to hear the news over the past few days,” Sa’ar wrote. “I hope the prime minister will emerge from his dire straits.”
Sa’ar wisely decided to be out of the country during Wednesday night’s pro-Netanyahu rally. The last thing he needs is to be cheered louder than Netanyahu at the event, or even worse, to be booed.
He did not want to face Netanyahu’s wrath, which is currently targeted at Transportation Minister Israel Katz, whom Netanyahu accused this week of “undermining” and “trying to replace” him.
Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, who is currently Netanyahu’s No. 2 in the Likud, Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat and other potential successors are all keeping a low profile. Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee head Avi Dichter was seen as criticizing Netanyahu and then immediately took it back.
When facing a stately evergreen tree, it is never wise to go too far out on a limb.