As Netanyahu plea fizzles out, so does jockeying for Likud leadership

After opposition leader announces he has no plans to leave politics, presumed contenders for Likud leadership swiftly fall back in line behind him, except for Yuli Edelstein

Carrie Keller-Lynn is a political and legal correspondent for The Times of Israel

Then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a Likud Party election event in Safed, March 8, 2021. (David Cohen/Flash90)
Then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a Likud Party election event in Safed, March 8, 2021. (David Cohen/Flash90)

Opposition chairman Benjamin Netanyahu’s Monday announcement that he intends to continue leading the Likud party and has not agreed to a plea deal that would bar him from politics all but ended a brewing contest to determine his successor almost as quickly as it began.

Reports that Netanyahu was nearing an agreement on a plea bargain that included a seven-year exit from politics had added fuel to already rampant speculation and posturing among Likud politicians who are seen as possible successors to the party’s longtime leader.

MKs Nir Barkat, Yuli Edelstein, Yisrael Katz, Amir Ohana, Miri Regev, and Tzachi Hanegbi were all seen as contenders were Netanyahu to have vacated the position he has held continuously since 2005.

Many of them have spent the past weeks active on television, radio, and social media, offering personal support for Netanyahu but also broadcasting their intention to run for the Likud helm.

But on Monday evening, Netanyahu, who is on trial for graft and bribery, appeared to confirm that plea talks had collapsed, sharing a video across social media networks in which he stated that he had not agreed to acknowledge “moral turpitude” as part of a potential deal and promised, “I will continue leading the Likud and the national camp in order to lead the State of Israel.”

The statement ended nearly a week of public silence, amid the reports that he was negotiating a plea bargain with outgoing Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit. The plea deal would reportedly require Netanyahu to accept the determination of moral turpitude, which would have banned the 72-year-old former prime minister from politics until 2029.

On the heels of Netanyahu’s announcement, all Likud leadership contenders except Edelstein quickly changed their messaging, expressing support for Netanyahu’s continued leadership of the party.

Even before reports about the plea deal talks arose, Edelstein had been the most open about challenging Netanyahu, going so far as to characterize the former prime minister as a hurdle Likud needed to overcome to regain power.

While Edelstein himself has been quiet on intra-Likud politics since Netanyahu’s announcement, a source close to the former Knesset speaker told The Times of Israel that he still intends to challenge the former premier for leadership of the party.

“He stated that he was running before there was any talk about [a Netanyahu plea deal]. So why would he go back on it?” the source asked rhetorically.

Then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and then-health minister Yuli Edelstein, seen during a visit at the COVID-19 vaccination center in Zarzir, northern Israel, on February 9, 2021. (David Cohen/Flash90)

In contrast, the rest of the posturing pack took to social media after Netanyahu’s announcement, issuing messages of support for the opposition head and his continued leadership of the party.

Barkat tweeted that he spoke to Netanyahu and “sought to strengthen him and his family for the brave decision he made.” He implored supporters to unite behind the still-0standing Likud leader in order to topple the current government.

Ohana shared Netanyahu’s message with the commentary, “we’re back, with full power in the engines.”

Regev wrote that she had wanted the former premier to fight the case and not plead out all along. She praised Netanyahu for listening to “the many voices heard in the public and in the faction, I among them, to fight for his innocence to the end.”

Similar statements of full-throttled support for Netanyahu could also be heard from the offices of Katz and Hanegbi as well.

The about-face led comedian and cultural observer Reshef Shay to compare the party to a household of teens who go wild when left on their own: “It’s like the Likud had an empty house for a week, and now dad is back.”

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