Will the battle to succeed Netanyahu destroy the Likud? - analysis

The battle to succeed Benjamin Netanyahu in the Likud is set to be among the dirtiest and nastiest elections in Israel’s history.

 OPPOSITION LEADER Benjamin Netanyahu addresses a Likud faction meeting in the Knesset last week. (photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)
OPPOSITION LEADER Benjamin Netanyahu addresses a Likud faction meeting in the Knesset last week.
(photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)

The battle to succeed opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu as head of Likud began in earnest over the past two weeks.

And if it continues the way it started, it will be among the dirtiest and nastiest elections in Israel’s history.

Three future serious candidates faced fierce attempts to finish them off politically and severely handicap their future.

The candidate leading in the polls, MK Nir Barkat, faced the anti-Barkat bill, which would limit any elected official and his family to donations of NIS 100,000 a year for political activity when no elections are taking place. The bill was initiated by MK David Amsalem, who has feuded with him for more than a decade, and it was enthusiastically endorsed by the heads of Yamina, New Hope and Yesh Atid.

The most veteran Likudnik, MK Israel Katz, endured open fire from Netanyahu himself, who accused him of no less than destroying the country’s future, because he has not done enough to purge the Likud of activists who want to shift the party leftward. Netanyahu threatened Katz that the 130,000 Likud members would never forgive him.

And the one apparent future candidate who Netanyahu once endorsed only half-jokingly to succeed him, former Mossad chief Yossi Cohen, faced an investigative report on Channel 13 that accused him of having an extramarital affair with a married stewardess and proceeding to destroy her husband’s life while globe-trotting for trysts with her and allegedly revealing state secrets.

 Former Mossad head Yossi Cohen is seen speaking at the Jerusalem Post annual conference at the Museum of Tolerance in Jerusalem, on October 12, 2021. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST) Former Mossad head Yossi Cohen is seen speaking at the Jerusalem Post annual conference at the Museum of Tolerance in Jerusalem, on October 12, 2021. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

Cohen is not a member of Likud yet, and he cannot join any party until his three-year cooling-off period ends on June 1, 2024. But the bitter ex-husband is a Likud member, and he did not hide the fact that one of his reasons for cooperating with the probe was that he wants the public to know Cohen’s dark side and prevent him from becoming Likud leader and prime minister.

The success of the attacks on Barkat, Katz and Cohen will take time to evaluate. Much will depend on the memories of Likud voters when they actually cast ballots in a post-Netanyahu primary that could take place anywhere from next year to next decade.

Barkat’s associates are already comparing Amsalem to Balaam, the biblical figure who was scolded by his own ass on the way to cursing the Jewish people and ended up blessing them against his will. No amount of money Barkat could have spent would anoint him as Netanyahu’s heir apparent more than a high-profile effort to bring him down by three party leaders and nearly half the Likud faction.

A cap on fundraising and spending could indeed harm a new candidate who still needs to meet the Likud’s rank and file. If so, Amsalem struck a couple years too late. Barkat has already had a chance to wine and dine a sizable portion of Likud activists and members, and he still has time before the bill would pass into law.

The bill could instead harm fellow candidate Yuli Edelstein, who is willing to run against Netanyahu and whose wife, Irina Nevzlin, is the daughter of an oligarch. Or it could harm Cohen, who is making tons of money heading the Israel office of the largest venture-capital fund in the world. SoftBank, the Japanese firm that runs the VC, has more than $100 billion in committed capital, and it has backed such global powerhouses as Alibaba, TikTok and Uber.

The Barkat bill currently does not apply to Cohen because he is not an elected official. But it could damage him significantly as a freshman MK seeking the Likud leadership without the connections enjoyed by competitors like Katz, who has had more than 30 years to get to know the Likud’s grassroots.

“He will have to work hard to run in Likud,” Barkat said of Cohen in an interview with Channel 12 on Saturday.

Similarly, Netanyahu’s attack on Katz is probably too late to hit the mark. If Katz, as head of the Likud’s governing secretariat, helped thousands of ideologically flexible people join the party, little can be done to stop him now. Even the Likud’s internal court, which is known for rubber-stamping Netanyahu’s decisions, did not agree to expel the so-called New Likudniks en masse based on social-media posts criticizing their party leader.

So that leaves the attack on Cohen. Would Likud members elect a leader who repeatedly cheated on his wife and hit on a flight attendant?

They’ve already done that several times. Netanyahu cheated on his pregnant first wife with his non-Jewish second wife, and after marrying stewardess Sara Ben-Artzi as his third wife, he cheated on her, too, while pregnant with their son Yair. He admitted to that affair on live, national TV, and he still got elected Likud leader the first time.

Likud members have proven time and time again that the issue they care most about is security. That is why Barkat tried to highlight his army service and the terrorist he neutralized at his latest mass rally.

Cohen’s successes against Iran’s nuclear program are well-documented, and there is plenty of time for operations elsewhere in the world to be leaked before he runs for anything in order to build up his image as one of Israel’s most daring leaders.

These three attacks on three future competitors may all end up boomeranging and helping them. But perhaps the next strike will be more effective. Or the one after that.

It is no wonder that most Likudniks want Netanyahu to hang on for as long as possible and delay the fight to succeed him and all the damage it will do to the party.

As Likud faction chairman Yariv Levin warned this weekend in an interview with Israel Hayom, “If Netanyahu will not head the Likud, we will completely destroy ourselves.”