“I decided to run for leadership of the movement because the current government is dangerous for the State of Israel,” Edelstein said. “We had an election four times, Likud was the largest faction in the Knesset four times – and we did not manage to form a government four times. If we do not face the facts, we will remain in the opposition for many years.”
Previous challengers to Netanyahu in the party primary have received about 25% of the votes. Gideon Sa’ar performed the best with his bid in December 2019, winning 27.5%. Moshe Feiglin received 23.4% and Danny Danon 25%.
However, according to a Channel 12 News poll after Edelstein declared his candidacy, 86% of Likud voters said they would vote for Netanyahu in a future party primary, as opposed to only 6% who said they would vote for Edelstein. The remaining 8% said they did not know.
The poll found that the Likud would win 14 fewer seats under Edelstein than it would under Netanyahu – 34 as opposed to just 20. These seats would be picked up by the Religious Zionist Party, Shas, Yamina and Yesh Atid. But critically, the poll also found that the Likud would not be able to form a religious-right-wing coalition under Netanyahu, falling five seats short of a 61-seat majority – on the assumption that none of the parties in the current coalition would agree to serve in a Netanyahu-led government.
Edelstein, a former health minister and Knesset speaker, believes if he headed the Likud other parties currently in the coalition, such as New Hope and even Yamina, would be willing to join a new Likud-led government, whereas they will not do so as long as Netanyahu remains head of the party. He intends to make this his main pitch whenever the primary contest takes place.
Edelstein wrote on Twitter that “the Channel 12 poll clearly proves what I argued – the Likud under my leadership can form a fully right-wing government as soon as tomorrow morning. It’s either Lapid or me. If we don’t do what’s necessary now, the Likud will remain on the outside,” he said. “I, as you know, am not motivated by personal hatred of Netanyahu. But, on the other hand, to sit in the opposition isn’t something that I can allow myself to do.”
Other Likud parliamentarians such as Nir Barkat, Miri Regev, Israel Katz and Avi Dichter are also expected to compete for the leadership of the party
It remains unclear exactly when the Likud primary will take place. Netanyahu reportedly considered holding a snap primary after Prime Minister Naftali Bennett formed the government but ultimately decided not to.
MK Haim Katz, who serves as chair of the Likud Central Committee and has control over when to call a party primary, made it clear it won’t be any time soon.
“There isn’t any reason to hold a primary. We held a primary before the last election, and the members of the Likud elected Netanyahu.” Katz said. “Edelstein’s announcement surprised me. The primary will be held according to the Likud bylaws half a year before the Knesset elections. Netanyahu also wanted to hold a primary and I told him that there wouldn’t be one. We’re an orderly, democratic movement. There are rules and there are bylaws. It’s a waste of time. That’s why I don’t understand Edelstein.”
Likud members speculated that Edelstein was banking on Netanyahu stepping down if, as expected, the budget is passed in November. However, there is no indication at this juncture that Netanyahu intends to relinquish his position as party leader. There is even a possibility that Netanyahu will back a primary before the end of the year if he decides to stay on after the budget is passed in order to cement his position as Likud leader.
One Likud lawmaker, Shlomo Karhi, predicted that Edelstein would quit the party. “I don’t know if that’s going to happen after the budget gets approved or after he loses in a defeat to Netanyahu. The coalition will give him anything he asks for. After Sa’ar and Elkin, I don’t have confidence in anyone anymore. The act he committed is even worse than what Sa’ar did during the elections. We’re in a battle of titans as the opposition.”
MK Miri Regev assumed that Netanyahu will easily overcome any leadership challenge. “The Likud is a democratic party. Everyone has the right to run in a primary. I have no doubt that in a race against Netanyahu, anyone would lose.”
Ze’ev Elkin, who left the Likud to join Gideon Sa’ar’s New Hope party before the last election, said other members of the Likud were also critical of Netanyahu’s leadership but were afraid to speak out. “I know what he’s thought about Netanyahu for the past two years. The things that Edelstein and I have said are nothing in comparison to what can be heard from senior Likud officials who praise Netanyahu in the studios and come out to defend him.”
The Edelstein challenge is not the only problem facing Netanyahu as leader of the opposition.
The opposition began the term of the new government as a fighting opposition characterized by late night Knesset sessions, endless filibusters and a refusal to pair off with coalition lawmakers who were absent from key plenum votes. That has long passed and in the crucial weeks ahead of the votes on the budget and the arrangements bill there were growing signs of discord in the opposition benches.
A number of Likud lawmakers, including Netanyahu himself , failed to turn up to vote when the Knesset passed an amendment to the medical cannabis bill proposed by New Hope MK Sharren Haskel, prompting anger amongst some Likud and Haredi lawmakers over the lack of discipline in the opposition ranks.
“I’m beating myself up over my screw-up last week,” Netanyahu told a Likud faction meeting, but rejected calls from MK David Bitan to sanction lawmakers who miss votes. “Let’s forget it and move on,” he urged.
Likud MKs and the ultra-Orthodox parties are also angry over the ongoing dispute that led to the opposition ban on participating in Knesset committees, preventing key amendments to be introduced to clauses in the budget.
And another blow for the leader of the opposition came when Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar announced he would propose controversial legislation that would potentially ban Netanyahu from being tasked with forming a government after new elections, due to the criminal indictments against him.
The Likud described the bill as “shameful” and accused Sa’ar, who is close in the polls to the electoral threshold, of proposing an undemocratic measure, similar to Iran, against a politician supported by millions of Israelis.
On the positive side for Netanyahu the polls continue to show increased support for the Likud and, as long as this is the case, Yuli Edelstein’s dream of replacing him as Likud leader may remain a pipe dream.