Edelstein throws down the gauntlet against Netanyahu

POLITICAL AFFAIRS: By stepping into the ring against Benjamin Netanyahu, the former Knesset speaker is betting that he can change the minds of the Likud faithful.

 YULI EDELSTEIN – his message was that there is no reason to think that if Netanyahu leads the party again, he will have any more success in forming a government than he did the last four times.  (photo credit: Yonatan Zendel/Flash90)
YULI EDELSTEIN – his message was that there is no reason to think that if Netanyahu leads the party again, he will have any more success in forming a government than he did the last four times.
(photo credit: Yonatan Zendel/Flash90)

Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu ended his blistering critique of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett during a fiery Knesset debate on the state budget on Sunday by saying the Lapid-Bennett “airplane” was going down.

Netanyahu’s speech was peppered with airplane imagery, having started by saying that as a three-year-old kid he set up chairs in the living room of his Jerusalem home in the shape of a plane, sat in the front chair, and called out to his mother: “Look, I’m a pilot, I’m flying a plane.”

“But I wasn’t. I sat in the chair as if I was a pilot,” he said. “When a three-year-old kid does this, it’s cute. But when Bennett sits in the prime minister’s chair and says, ‘I am the pilot, I am flying the plane, I am navigating,’ and in actuality he is not deciding anything, and he is not navigating to anywhere... it is not cute, it is pathetic, and I say it is even dangerous.”

Netanyahu returned to this aviation theme at the end of his 26-minute, oft-interrupted speech. “To dress up as a pilot does not make you a pilot. And to dress up as the prime minister, to have the title, and to be photographed against the green marble wall at the UN, does not turn you into a true prime minister.

“The Lapid-Bennett plane is going down,” he declared. “Without a pilot, with a flight plan, without a destination, and with so many hands-on in the cockpit that plane is doomed to crash. But I am saying to the citizens of Israel, there is hope – because there is another plane that is waiting on the runway. It is our plane. We will act differently, just as we did with success until recently.”

Israel's opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu is seen gesturing at the Knesset, on July 26, 2021. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)Israel's opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu is seen gesturing at the Knesset, on July 26, 2021. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

THE ONLY problem, as MK Yuli Edelstein made clear in his announcement the next night that he will challenge Netanyahu for the Likud’s leadership, is that there really is no alternative Likud “plane” sitting on the runway ready to soar.

This is the case for two reasons: First, with Netanyahu as the pilot, the plane does not have enough fuel – in the sense of 61 MKs needed to form a government – to enable it to take off.

Second, there are those on the plane – even those who in the past were Netanyahu’s copilots – who don’t think he should be piloting, precisely because he will not be able to get the plane off the ground.

Edelstein, in jettisoning the line that he and other leading Likud contenders have repeated up until now – that they will vie for Likud leadership the day after Netanyahu steps aside – made it clear he believes the party, if it wants to return to power, cannot wait and must nudge him aside now.

“I decided to run for the leadership of the movement because the current government is simply dangerous for Israel,” Edelstein said in a Channel 12 interview on Monday. “We went to elections four times, and four times the Likud was the largest party in the Knesset – by far – and four times we weren’t able to form a national government led by the Likud.”

Edelstein, who called for primaries to be held as soon as possible – something that at this point seems a remote possibility – said that he knows the Likud rank-and-file pretty well (he was No. 1 in the previous Likud primary, held in February 2019).

That knowledge must be behind his strategy, which is not to attack Netanyahu – who remains highly popular among Likud voters – but, rather, to try to convince them that to continue to support Netanyahu will just lead to prolonged exile from around the cabinet table.

Edelstein’s message was that Netanyahu must be replaced not because he is on trial for bribery, fraud and breach of trust, not because there was anything necessarily wrong with his style of governance, but because there is no reason to think that if Netanyahu leads the party again, he will have any more success in forming a government than he did the last four times.

“With Netanyahu we failed four times to form a government. How will we succeed a fifth time?” he asked.

Or, as columnist Shmuel Rosner wrote, Edelstein’s argument appeals “to the head, not to the heart.”

What Edelstein is saying is that with Netanyahu at the party’s helm, there will never be another Likud-led “national” coalition, but with him – Edelstein – there could be one. It is not that Netanyahu is bad, just that at this point in his long, storied career, he is unable to put together a government. So, Edelstein told Likudniks, if you want to return to power, you better replace him.

ARE THE Likudnikim buying?

Not according to a poll on Channel 12 the night after Edelstein’s announcement. According to the poll, fully 86% of Likud voters said they would prefer Netanyahu in a primary, as opposed to only 6% whose choice was Edelstein. (Netanyahu beat his last challenger – Gideon Sa’ar – in a 2019 leadership primary by a 72.5% to 27.5% margin.)

In other words, this contest is not even close, though the numbers might narrow were other likely candidates – such as Nir Barkat, Miri Regev, Israel Katz and Avi Dichter – to be thrown into the mix.

The poll also showed that if elections were held today, the Likud’s strength under Netanyahu would rise from 30 to 34 seats.

But that was only one part of the poll. The poll also indicated that even with those 34 seats, the Likud and its allied parties – Shas, United Torah Judaism, Religious Zionists – end up with 56 seats, falling short, as they did in the last four elections, of being able to form a government.

The poll also found that if Netanyahu were to be replaced by Edelstein, the Likud’s power would drop considerably, going down to just 20 seats and placing it in a tie for first place with Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid Party. That, for Likud supporters, is the bad news.

The good news in that poll for Likudniks? Even with a mere 20 seats, the Likud could, with other right-wing parties such as New Hope and Bennett’s Yamina Party, form a coalition.

THAT IS why, after a poll showing that he would be clobbered by Netanyahu in a primary, Edelstein’s immediate reaction was to tweet that the poll “clearly proves what I claimed last night – the Likud under my leadership can form a full-fledged right-wing government as early as tomorrow morning. It’s either Lapid or me. If we do not do what is necessary now, the Likud will stay out [of power]!”

With primaries not anywhere on the horizon, however, why make this challenge now?

First, as Edelstein said, the party apparatus has not been asked to move the primary up, and this is a process he hopes his announcement will trigger.

Second, Edelstein has been saying for weeks to party faithful that the passage of the budget – expected in early November – is a watershed moment, because after the budget passes the “coin will drop” for the Likud faithful, who will understand that this government is not falling, and they are facing years in opposition.

The most realistic way to bring down the government after the budget passes would be for a constructive vote of no-confidence, whereby an absolute majority of MKs vote no confidence in the current government and rally behind an agreed-upon alternative prime minister, who would then be entrusted with the task of forming a new one.

Edelstein said that with 72 right-wing Knesset members, this should not be too difficult a task. The next day, at the Jerusalem Post Annual Conference, New Hope leader Sa’ar himself said that if the Likud elects a new chief, “everything will be open.”

Edelstein mentioned nothing in his interview about the fact that his wife, Irina Nevzlin, is one of the leading candidates to become head of the Jewish Agency. This has led to some speculation that this announcement was tied to her candidacy: an effort to help her chances among the 10 members of the nomination committee, who might take a shine to the prospect of appointing someone who could be so close to a future prime minister.

But that final consideration – that Edelstein might be a prime minister someday – is very much putting the cart before the horse. Edelstein’s first task is to convince Likud voters that Netanyahu cannot form a government, and even that appears to be a daunting task, as only 17% of Likud voters said in the Channel 12 poll they agreed with that assessment, and a whopping 68% disagreed.

By willing to step into the ring with Netanyahu, Edelstein is betting that he can change the minds of the Likud faithful. But that is quite a gamble. For, as Rosner wrote, Edelstein is challenging “a heavyweight who is still standing, and who is not showing signs of fatigue.”