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Edelstein, who said Netanyahu can’t win, abandons Likud leadership challenge

Facing a ‘critical election for the State of Israel, I cannot drag Likud into an internal fight,’ says senior party MK following Knesset dispersal

Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu (left) with Likud MK Yuli Edelstein in the Knesset on November 4, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu (left) with Likud MK Yuli Edelstein in the Knesset on November 4, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Likud MK Yuli Edelstein has walked back an earlier promise to run against Likud chairman Benjamin Netanyahu for the leadership of the party.

“Wherever I went, I have always put the Likud movement first,” Edelstein said in a statement on Thursday. “Now, when we face a critical election for the State of Israel, I cannot drag Likud into an internal fight, and I have therefore decided to retract my candidacy for the party chairmanship in the upcoming election.”

Edelstein, a former health minister and former Knesset speaker, said that his decision — hours after the Knesset officially dispersed ahead of the next election — “stems from a will to unite and win. In this election, we will make a change and act differently,” he added. “Together with Likud chairman Benjamin Netanyahu, I will lead to the national camp’s victory in the elections and to the formation of a full right-wing government.”

Just a month ago, as the cracks in the outgoing government were deepening, Edelstein explicitly called to hold a leadership challenge to Netanyahu if the opposition leader failed to form a government in the current Knesset.

Despite efforts to attract defectors from the right-wing parties in the coalition, Likud could not muster a new government and was forced to support the vote for a new election, now slated for November 1.

“If Netanyahu knows how to assemble a government in the current Knesset, I definitely won’t stand in his way because I said the State of Israel doesn’t need elections. If not, then hold a competition for leadership of the party,” Edelstein told Channel 12 news in late May. “I usually don’t get into fights that I don’t think I can win.”

Likud MK Yuli Edelstein speaks at a conference in Herzliya, November 23, 2021. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Edelstein first declared his intention to challenge Netanyahu in a future primary last year, citing the former prime minister’s inability to assemble a right-wing government in the past four elections.

The Likud party was, for a long time, firmly behind Netanyahu, but that control frayed amid a series of grueling elections and political instability between 2019 and 2021, with Netanyahu facing fraud charges during the same period. Netanyahu then lost power to Bennett’s coalition last year.

Edelstein is generally popular in the Likud party. In 2019, he was the top vote-getter in the primary for potential Knesset candidates, which determines the order of the Knesset slate below the party leader.

Jockeying to potentially succeed Netanyahu within the party hit a peak in January amid reports that the former prime minister was close to signing a plea deal in his corruption trial that would have barred him from politics for seven years. But when the deal fizzled out, so did the ramped-up speculation regarding his successor.

Likud MK Nir Barkat, a former mayor of Jerusalem, has long been seen as a contender to replace Netanyahu, irking loyalists of the current leader, who attempted to pass legislation aimed at limiting self-financing of campaigns. The bill was seen as personally targeting Barkat, a millionaire thought to be the richest member of the Knesset.

The most recent Likud leadership primary was held in 2019, with Netanyahu winning 72.5 percent of party votes, beating Gideon Sa’ar, who took home 27.5%. A year later, Sa’ar exited Likud and established the New Hope party, which joined the outgoing Bennett-Lapid coalition.

A date for the next Likud primary has not been set yet, and it is unclear if any other current party MKs will attempt to challenge Netanyahu for the top spot.

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