ANALYSIS: The plot to replace Netanyahu

As the line from Catch-22 goes: Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they aren't after you.

By
May 28, 2016 23:16
4 minute read.
Israel's 34th government

Israel's 34th government. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

 
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If there's one epithet the punditry repeatedly uses about Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whether in relation to his foreign policies or internal politics, it's "paranoid."

And yet, as the line from Catch-22 goes: Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they aren't after you. If Netanyahu feels like the walls are closing in on him and enemies are at his door these days, it's not without reason.

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For years, since Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon took a break from politics after a term as a Likud minister, there has been talk about the formation of an alternative right-wing bloc that could take Netanyahu down. Kahlon seemingly jumped the gun; his newly formed Kulanu Party ran in the next election on a mostly economic platform and got only 10 seats as opposed to the Netanyahu-led Likud with 30.

And, of course, both new coalition partner Avigdor Liberman formed his Yisrael Beytenu party and Education Minister Naftali Bennett ran for Bayit Yehudi leader as disgruntled ex-Netanyahu employees with varying success in different elections, but they have yet to become real contenders for the premiership.

Now, though, it looks like several prominent figures on the Right are circling the wagons.

Looking at Moshe Ya'alon's resignation speech as defense minister and ex-environmental protection minister Avi Gabbay's press conference when he announced he, too, was leaving the government, there are a few overlapping themes, most prominent of which is accusing this government of extremism and Netanyahu of suppressing dissent.

There's some irony in those statements, whether one agrees with them or not.



Ya'alon said the Likud is not the Likud he knows, though he is not someone who grew up in the party; in the years since he first ran for a slot on the Likud list, in 2009, Moshe Feiglin's hard-right flank of the party - to which he pandered at their events - crashed and burned and exited.

Gabbay was a minister in the Kulanu Party, which he helped found. It does not have a primary system and is led by one man, Kahlon, whose MKs never, ever speak out against him, though it's safe to assume, since Kahlon is human, that he has flaws.

Regardless of the facts undermining their message, it's a message that's spreading among other public figures on the Right and fueling persistent rumors, and even early talks, in the political sphere of hawkish figures who also emphasize Likud's longstanding liberal values teaming up, whether to "retake" Likud from within, or to form a new, competing party.

That's liberal in the classical, European sense, not the American one, meaning, very broadly, the free market and individual rights.

The Likud was founded when a joint bloc of eventual prime minister Menachem Begin's Herut Party and the Liberal Party combined with other right-wing parties. Many people who have left the Likud disappointed - such as former ministers Dan Meridor or Michael Eitan - and some who are still there - MK Bennie Begin - lament the deemphasis of those liberal values.

The name that keeps cropping up in this context is former education and interior minister Gideon Sa'ar, who has come out as No. 1 after Netanyahu in multiple Likud primaries. He decided to take a break from politics in 2014 after his relations with the prime minister soured, saying he wanted to spend more time with his new family.

As recently as Friday, Sa'ar pointed out on Twitter that he still pays dues to the Likud, yet he is one of the names that is polled most often as an outside challenger to Netanyahu.

Sa'ar is beloved in the Likud, as his primary results indicate, and remains such to all but the biggest Netanyahu loyalists and his competitors within the party, most notably Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan.

The polling numbers show, however, that he will have to work to spread that popularity to the greater public.

Another name that comes up as a possible contender is former IDF chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi. His comments at last week's Jerusalem Post Annual Conference indicate that he is still quite hawkish and that, perhaps, the general assumption in the political sphere that he would go to Labor may not be true.

Of course, though the case was closed with no charges, Ashkenazi is still strongly associated with the Harpaz Affair, in which he was accused of plotting to illegally undermine defense minister Ehud Barak's choice to succeed him.

Other possible names on this eventual list could be Yediot Aharonot columnist Yoaz Hendel, another disgruntled former Netanyahu employee. Hendel is often the sole right-wing voice in Yediot's weekend analysis magazine; appears on television fairly often; and wrote a successful book last year. A more surprising possibility that involved parties have floated is former Yesha Council director Pinhas Wallerstein, who has made some public statements on the moderate-right side of politics lately.

Meanwhile, in the here and now and not in the sphere of rumors and backroom talks, Bennett is still continuing to challenge Netanyahu over intelligence briefings for security cabinet ministers. Certainly, this has not passed Netanyahu's notice, as Bennett seems to be positioning himself as the responsible right-wing one, as opposed to the prime minister, who is thought likely to be slammed on this issue in the comptroller's report on Operation Protective Edge.

That brings us back to more rumors.

For years, Bayit Yehudi insiders have been suspicious that Bennett will eventually leave the party, which won't be able to make him prime minister, and jump ship to the Likud. Could he be talking to any or all of the aforementioned list? Pundits can call Netanyahu "paranoid" all they want, but it looks like he has more than enough reasons to be watching his back these days.

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