Israeli elections: Likud’s succession struggle is under way

With the legally embattled Benjamin Netanyahu teetering on his throne, a succession battle is effectively under way.

Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Speculating about an emperor’s successor, or even just the time of his death, was a capital offense in ancient Rome, wrote author Gore Vidal before proceeding to scorn this attitude’s inversion, Americans’ habit of discussing a president’s succession the day he enters the Oval Office.
Of the two choices, Israel’s ruling party has traditionally leaned toward the Roman.
Now, however, with the legally embattled Benjamin Netanyahu teetering on his throne, a succession battle is effectively under way, even though talk within the party of his departure is not much safer than forecasting a Roman Caesar’s demise.
Having had only four chairmen in its 46 years, Likud never unseated its elected leader, allowing them instead to depart voluntarily, the way Yitzhak Shamir did after losing the 1992 election, or the way Menachem Begin did in 1983, in the wake of the First Lebanon War, not to mention the way Ariel Sharon left in 2005, when he established a competing party.
Challenging the party leader the way, for instance, Labor’s Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin did to each other alternately last century always backfired in Likud. Ezer Weizman’s quest to replace Begin in 1980 ended with the former’s ouster from the party, and Sharon’s undermining of Shamir later that decade resulted in his being sidelined.
Challenging the leader these days should have been altogether unthinkable, considering the length of Netanyahu’s current incumbency – a decade and eight months – and his good health, all of which under normal circumstances would have prevented all talk of succession, let alone usurpation.
Alas, circumstances are not normal, on two planes: legally, Netanyahu has been indicted, and politically, he has failed twice within half a year to form a coalition.
This is the backdrop against which the previously unthinkable happened November 21, when MK Gideon Sa’ar said the Likud must hold a primary election for its leadership, and that he will run in it against Netanyahu. “I think I can form a government and unite the people,” he told a recent Jerusalem Post Diplomatic Conference.
The statement was wry, in both tone and wording, and its argumentation was impersonal and amoral, avoiding criticism of Netanyahu’s personality or mention of his legal entanglement, saying only that Netanyahu lost the ability to form a government, and a new election will not restore what he has lost.
Even so, that statement fired the starter pistol, and now the runners in the race for Netanyahu’s inheritance are off, with one pair ahead of the pack, at least seven others stranded well behind them, and one forgotten contestant emerging from the rear, well positioned to surprise the rest.
The timing of Netanyahu’s unfolding departure leaves out of the race a slew of potential contenders, both from within and without Likud.
Outside the ruling party, current circumstances play against the aspirations of three: Avigdor Liberman, Naftali Bennett, and Ayelet Shaked.
Liberman has lost the ability to bid for Likud’s leadership. In a party where loyalty is a supreme value, the former defense minister’s imposition of the early election that produced the current political impasse is perceived not as stratagem but as betrayal.
As recently as 2013, Liberman seemed like Netanyahu’s anointed successor when his Yisrael Beytenu party commanded 15 Knesset seats and ran for election on a joint ticket with Likud.
That federation’s breakup by the next election, and Liberman’s subsequent resignation as defense minister, still left alive the prospect of him ultimately returning to Likud and assuming its leadership. Recent months’ events have put paid to all such talk.
Not only has Liberman – as Likud members see things – personally tripped Netanyahu and thus helped his downfall, he is challenging the party’s historic alliance with the ultra-Orthodox, and in fact positions himself even to the left of Labor on issues of religion and state.
The case of Naftali Bennett is similar except his longer-term chances, unlike Liberman’s, remain alive.
The former hi-tech entrepreneur’s gambit last year – when he left Bayit Yehudi’s leadership in order to form the New Right – failed colossally when the new party failed to cross the electoral threshold. Conventional wisdom at the time was that the move was designed to create a diving board from which a reinforced Bennett would eventually join Likud and run for its leadership, and, by extension, Israel’s.
Bennett subsequently returned to the Knesset through his previous party, this time under the leadership of his longtime ally Ayelet Shaked. The relevance of the two was restored, but not the power they wielded back when they were, respectively, Netanyahu’s education and justice ministers.
It was in this context that Netanyahu now appointed Bennett as defense minister, following reports that he was negotiating a defection to Blue and White leader Benny Gantz’s fold. This outcome leaves Bennett within Likud’s camp, and thus shorn of the disloyalty label that precludes Liberman’s candidacy.
However, Bennett’s electoral fiasco last spring deprives him of the other attribute contenders for Likud’s leadership must display: power. Bennett knows this, and realizes that his task in upcoming years will be to accumulate power, a goal that takes time – which at 47 he still has – until he can stage a future bid.
The same goes for Shaked. The software engineer who crafted conservative jurists’ appointments as High Court justices is popular across the ideological right, but is in no position right now to join the race for Likud’s leadership. Then again, at 43, she has time to join Likud and build her way up its ranks.
Lastly, among the outsiders comes Moshe Kahlon. The 59-year-old finance minister who stormed the center-right electorate in 2015 and emerged with 10 Knesset seats seemed at the time as a natural contender for the leadership of the Likud, where his political career began.
Born to Libyan immigrants and raised with six siblings, Kahlon personifies Likud’s working-class constituency and also that electorate’s social mobility, having proceeded from the slums of Givat Olga where he was born and raised to a Haifa University degree in political science, a law degree from Netanya College, and a successful term as Netanyahu’s communications minister from 2009-2013.
However, as finance minister, Kahlon faded politically when his faction gradually fell apart, while his delivery at the Treasury, underscored by a deep budget deficit, is seen as an economic failure and a political flop.
The electoral aftermath of all this, a 60% plunge, resulted in his return to the Likud, and rumors of plans for an early retirement. Succeeding Netanyahu, he realizes, is no longer in the cards.
Within Likud’s fold, there are five other would-be candidates that current circumstances leave out of the race.
The most prominent of these is Regional Cooperation Minister Tzachi Hanegbi, 62, who has been a lawmaker for an aggregate 28 years since 1988; held six different cabinet portfolios during 10 years as a minister; and served as prime minister Yitzhak Shamir’s bureau chief in the 1980s.
Though widely appreciated for his experience and balance, Hanegbi lost much of his party base last decade, when he followed Ariel Sharon to Kadima, and while at it backed the retreat from Gaza.
Another possibility could have been Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz, 61, a published philosopher, former finance minister, and a lawmaker since 1999, who earned kudos for engineering the complex regulation that now governs the mining of Israel’s newly found offshore gas.
Despite these credentials, the uncharismatic Steinitz also lacks a party base, and is seen as Netanyahu’s personal political project, whose emergence in politics was fully his master’s doing. Though he has nothing to do with Netanyahu’s scandals, his status is prone to suffer from Netanyahu’s downfall, much the way it benefited from his ascent.
Then comes Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, an eloquent, 49-year-old lawyer who has also been a member of all governments since 2009, and unlike Steinitz has some following among Likud’s members.
However, Erdan’s performance as the minister in charge of Israel Police has disappointed many as he appeared indecisive, repeatedly failing to appoint a police chief whose tenure would be both lasting and effective. The current acting commissioner, Motti Cohen, has been awaiting a commissioner’s formal appointment for nearly a year.
The “Performance Syndrome” also plagues Likud MK Nir Barkat’s candidacy, because his delivery during a decade as Jerusalem’s mayor is perceived as mediocre. Worse, from his viewpoint, his mere several months as a lawmaker and none as a minister render his candidacy premature. 
Finally, among the non-candidates, there is Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev, who said last year that “it’s time for a woman prime minister,” albeit not immediately, but “after the Netanyahu era.” The 54-year-old former IDF Spokesperson has made a lot of populist headlines in her four ministerial years, but is seen in the party as a political novice who is unfit to enter Netanyahu’s shoes.
Gideon Sa’ar’s candidacy lacks the non-candidates’ drawbacks, and on the face of it, has what they lack.
Having been minister of education and interior, he is experienced; a trained lawyer, he has also been an effective legislator; and he enjoys broad support among the party’s membership and apparatus. That is how Sa’ar’s challenging of Netanyahu quickly won the backing of three mayors – Carmel Shama-Hacohen of Ramat Gan, Shimon Lankri of Acre, and Yitzhak Danino of Ofakim – all veteran diehard Likudniks.
The three, whose constituencies are all within the Green Line, were then joined by Yossi Dagan, head of the Samaria Regional Council, who said “Sa’ar is a worthy and principled leader.” The four were joined by the mayors of Israel’s northernmost and southernmost towns, David Azoulai of Metulla and Meir Yitzhak Halevi of Eilat.
This backing reflects Sa’ar’s popularity among varied constituencies, from the geographic periphery’s working class through the moneyed elite of Ramat Gan to settlers in the West Bank. The one flaw in Sa’ar’s gambit is what his rivals depict as disloyalty to Netanyahu.
Chief among these is Foreign Minister Israel Katz, a lifelong politician and arguably the most powerful man in Likud’s administration, as head of its secretariat for the past 15 years.
The 64-year-old Katz brings an additional asset: his record as transportation minister during a decade in which he multiplied Israel’s highways and railways while reducing air travel prices by encouraging competition.
The burly Katz’s consequent image is of an authoritative and efficient administrator who knows to get big and complex projects done, a record that Sa’ar for now lacks, whether due to a lack of ability or a lack of opportunity.
While a Katz-Sa’ar contest steadily approaches, a third candidate looms beyond them: Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein.
The 61-year-old former prisoner of Zion is believed to be eyeing not the premiership, but the presidency, following the end of Reuven Rivlin’s term in summer 2021. Then again, like his soft-spoken manner, Edelstein’s relatively limited ambition is, paradoxically, an asset that might land him on Netanyahu’s throne as unintentionally as Gerald Ford landed on Richard Nixon’s.
An Edelstein premiership would be fraught with symbolism, a spectacular journey from a Siberian gulag to the Jewish state’s command that would embody the Zionist idea. At the same time, it would also bring a spirit of modesty that Katz and Sa’ar equally lack, not to mention who one of these three is likely to soon succeed.