Inside story

As Netanyahu’s popularity wanes, Likud MK Danny Danon prepares to mount challenge

Some party members said to be working toward vote of no confidence against PM; while several seem interested in replacing him as Likud leader, ex-UN envoy is seen as top contender

Shalom Yerushalmi

Shalom Yerushalmi is the political analyst for Zman Israel, The Times of Israel’s Hebrew current affairs website

Likud MKs Dudi Amsalem (left), David Bitan (standing center) and Danny Danon (right) seen during a vote in the assembly hall of the Knesset, February 15, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Likud MKs Dudi Amsalem (left), David Bitan (standing center) and Danny Danon (right) seen during a vote in the assembly hall of the Knesset, February 15, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party are concerned that if Netanyahu fails to resign at the end of Israel’s war with Hamas, voters will oust them from government and keep them out for decades to come.

On Sunday, Likud’s David Amsalem, a junior minister in the Justice Ministry, became the first member of the party to publicly voice some of these concerns when he warned during a faction meeting that “if Likud falls in the elections, it will not return to power for another 20 years.”

Speaking to Zman Yisrael, the Times of Israel’s Hebrew-language sister site, a Likud MK confirmed that Amsalem was not alone in feeling this way.

“Amsalem is right,” the lawmaker said on the condition of anonymity. “If Netanyahu stays on as leader of Likud, we will fall and not return to power for another 40 years.”

Amsalem’s comments, which included warnings about the “Bolshevik left” seizing power should Likud falter, have reignited internal Likud opposition to Netanyahu’s leadership, leading to increased coordination between several party dissidents who previously didn’t see eye-to-eye.

For those within Likud who oppose Netanyahu, a potential route is to pass a “constructive vote of no confidence” against him with the support of 61 Knesset members, both from the coalition and opposition.

Such a vote would remove Netanyahu from the government without ousting his party, allowing it to form an alternative coalition under a different premier. Several MKs are working to garner support for the plan.

For the idea to succeed, ten members of Likud would need to rally around it, something which many consider extremely unlikely.

Hoping to replace Netanyahu, now and for the foreseeable future, is Economy Minister Nir Barkat. In private conversations with various MKs, he has presented in-depth polls that indicate that were he to lead Likud, the party would manage 25 seats in the next election.

Economy Minister Nir Barkat seen during a meeting with heads of the business sector in Israel in Tel Aviv, October 23, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

While the party currently holds 32 seats, recent polls have shown it falling to as few as 18 if Netanyahu were to remain at its head.

Barkat has publicly expressed dissatisfaction with Netanyahu’s leadership in recent weeks and said he will not vote for the government’s 2023 wartime budget when it comes to the Knesset floor on Wednesday unless his office is given NIS 250 million $68 million) to prop up ailing businesses on Israel’s southern and northern borders.

However, while Barkat is supported by some functionaries and officials, he lacks a serious bloc of support within the party, making it unlikely that he would find many if any partners to back him if he faced off with Netanyahu.

MK Yuli Edelstein is also hoping to be chosen as the party leader should Netanyahu be ousted, but it is not him that people are rallying around. Instead, most of the activity inside the party appears to be focused on MKs David Bitan and Danny Danon.

The two politicians are both trying, separately and together, to rally members of the Knesset for the task of passing a constructive vote of no confidence.

In addition to trying to persuade members of the coalition to move against Netanyahu, Bitan is engaging in talks with the opposition, and more specifically with Opposition Leader Yair Lapid, who has previously hinted at conversations with “Likud officials.”

Opposition Leader Yair Lapid and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) attend a plenum session in the Knesset, October 16, 2023. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Danon, Israel’s former ambassador to the UN, has always been seen as something of an oppositionist within Likud and he doesn’t shy away from presenting independent right-wing positions.

Following the October 7 Hamas onslaught, Danon has been one of the only Likud MKs to openly criticize both the government and Netanyahu in media appearances.

At Sunday’s faction meeting, he confronted Netanyahu, accusing him of being too hesitant in the war against Hamas and of failing to use full force against the Gaza terror group in the aftermath of October 7, when thousands of Hamas-led terrorists poured into southern Israel, killing more than 1,200 people and taking some 240 hostages.

“If Naftali Bennett were [still] prime minister, and we were two months into the war, we would have attacked him for his limited achievements,” Danon charged.

Danon previously challenged Netanyahu for the Likud leadership in 2014 and won 30% of the vote. Now, close to a decade later, it’s clear that he is gearing up to face Netanyahu once more.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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