No one will say he wants to replace Netanyahu – yet

With corruption scandals dominating headlines, contenders are waiting in the Likud’s wings, but the party believes Netanyahu when he says it’s all "fake news."

FORMER CABINET minister Gideon Sa’ar, on the left, Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan (center) and Transportation Minister Israel Katz are seen as leading contenders to succeed Netanyahu (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
FORMER CABINET minister Gideon Sa’ar, on the left, Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan (center) and Transportation Minister Israel Katz are seen as leading contenders to succeed Netanyahu
If you want to see a senior Likud MK’s face go white, ask him what he’s doing to prepare for the day after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s tenure ends.
“Don’t get me in trouble” is the answer you’ll most likely get. Then, inevitably, you’ll hear some variation of the Likud talking-points about the scandals involving Netanyahu and some of his closest allies – attorney and cousin David Shimron, Bezeq majority shareholder Shaul Elovich, and Communications Ministry director-general Shlomo Filber. The usual ones include “there won’t be anything, because there isn’t anything,” Netanyahu is not a suspect in either the submarine or Bezeq scandals, and the media are trying to bring the Likud down.
It wouldn’t be far-fetched to think that the Likud would be busy with internal politics and a race to the party’s top slot, as one headline after another screams that the prime minister is in trouble, but it turns out that Likudniks’ faith in their leader – or for top politicians, fear of him – is strong enough to keep competition at bay.
It’s a well-established fact that, unlike in Labor, whose voters like to change leaders about as often as they change their socks, Likud leaders tend to get support until they choose to leave.
There are some concerns, one longtime Likud central committee member said this week, since some of the people implicated in these corruption cases are so close to Netanyahu. The submarine and Bezeq cases are creating a greater public buzz than when there was talk about Netanyahu allegedly improperly accepting gifts of cigars and bubbly.
Under Netanyahu, the Likud won the last three elections, getting 30 Knesset seats in 2015. Even if someone sees him or herself as the one to replace Netanyahu, openly challenging him would do more harm than good, the central committee member said, by way of explaining why the prime minister’s stature in his party hasn’t diminished, even though he is taking a beating in the media.
Another senior party source also pointed to the “cigars and bubbly” case as the only one that looks like it could lead directly to an indictment for the prime minister, but estimated that Netanyahu wouldn’t quit over it. Legally, he wouldn’t have to resign over an indictment.
The more likely scenario would be that the prime minister would call an election to try to show the attorney-general how much public support he still has, despite the allegations against him. One source estimated that it would be at least two years before a Likud leadership election, so it’s just not worth it for any of the MKs to look like he or she is challenging Netanyahu.
Still, there is something simmering beneath the surface. It’s definitely just simmering and hasn’t reached a full-blown boil, but the competition to be Netanyahu’s heir has been around for years and isn’t going anywhere.
The trio of former interior minister Gideon Sa’ar, Public Security and Strategic Affairs Minister Gilad Erdan and Transportation and Intelligence Minister Israel Katz are thought to be the leading contenders for the throne, though none will say so publicly these days.
Of the three, Sa’ar is the only one who is openly in campaign mode. After a two-and-a-half-year hiatus, during which he made occasional speeches that drew disproportionate media coverage, Sa’ar announced his official return to politics earlier this year.
He has been traveling around the country to meet with Likud activists, with whom he is still popular, but, of course, he doesn’t say that it’s a campaign for the Likud leadership. Still, his is the only name within the Likud that sends Netanyahu’s advisers into a tizzy at its mere mention.
Erdan and Katz are working within the government to set themselves up to look like prime ministerial. They both insisted on expanded security-related portfolios when the government was formed in 2015.
Katz is known to have great ties with the Likud grassroots, and he’s very good at getting positive press for his work on transportation and infrastructure. For example, practically every media outlet in the country has run a story that’s a firsthand view of the tunnel through which the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem train will run, featuring photos of Katz in a hardhat. He’s whispered in the right ears about his ambitions, and is always listed along with Sa’ar as a potential Likud leader.
Erdan, who came in first place in the last Likud primary, is in a more precarious position because of his Public Security portfolio, which means he oversees the Israel Police, which is probing Netanyahu and friends. He has to make extra-certain that he’s not seen as campaigning, in order not to impugn the investigation process as political.
However, that doesn’t mean Erdan isn’t maintaining a high profile. Some of the major events in the country of recent years involve the police – last week’s terrorist attack on the Temple Mount and subsequent rioting, Palestinian terrorists’ hunger strike in prison, and more. Erdan doesn’t need to create media events for himself; he just needs to make sure to show up and respond well.
There are a couple of dark-horse candidates, as well. Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, who came in second place in the Likud primary after Erdan and before Katz, is sometimes thought to be a contender, but there’s also talk of him having presidential aspirations, and he hasn’t gotten organized or committed to any future plans at all.
Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat has joined the Likud and is thought to want to run for the top slot in the party, but the grassroots is unimpressed. Still, with his current position and his wealth, he can’t be discounted outright.
Former Shin Bet chief MK Avi Dichter has said he sees himself as a candidate to replace Netanyahu and caught serious flak from within the party, forcing him to clarify that he meant only after the prime minister chooses to step down. He’s not seen as a serious competitor, despite his security record.
Of a handful of people who spoke to The Jerusalem Post for this article, Likud central committee member Gidon Ariel, who’s in the religious-settler sector of the party, was the only one willing to be quoted under his own name.
Ariel confirmed what others said: “I’m a member of many Likud WhatsApp groups, and not a word is being said about this. The extreme Right doesn’t usually miss a chance to lash out against Netanyahu, and they’re not talking about it either... Not only is no one speaking out against Netanyahu, but people are saying we have to go out of our way to support him and hang signs and organize counter-rallies.
“I think the idea that it’s all fake news to sell papers has a lot of support,” Ariel said of the idea that the end of Netanyahu’s time as prime minister is near. He posited that the Likud’s “knockout” victory in 2015 still resonates with the party’s voters and so potential Likud leadership candidates have not been reaching out to party activists.
“Absolutely not,” Ariel said. “Not in the slightest. People will wait until [Netanyahu] tries to leave, and then they’ll scramble.
Right now there is absolutely nothing. Even Sa’ar, who has many events going on – I can’t imagine he’d say anything anywhere near that.”
And so, the race to the top spot in the Likud remains on hold for now.