Edelstein to challenge Netanyahu as Likud leader if party goes to opposition

Health minister tells associates he believes he has a good chance of winning if ‘change bloc’ manages to form a government, amid growing signs of dissent in ruling party

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

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and 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)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and 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)

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein plans to challenge Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for the leadership of Likud, should the party head to the opposition, Zman Yisrael, the Times of Israel’s Hebrew sister site, reported Monday.

The report comes as a diverse coalition of parties that refuse to sit with Netanyahu appear to be on the brink of forming a so-called “change government,” leading to the first open expressions of dissent from within Likud against its longtime leader.

In conversations with associates, Edelstein, who has also served as speaker of the Knesset, has expressed confidence that his chances of defeating Netanyahu in party primaries are good.

Edelstein was planning to make a final decision if the new government under Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid and Yamina’s Naftali Bennett gets sworn in.

Parties opposed to Netanyahu on Monday stressed that the government they were working to form was not finalized, and accused the prime minister of inciting against them as he increasingly faces the prospect of losing the premiership.

“There are still plenty of obstacles in the way of the formation of the new government,” Lapid, who is currently tasked with stringing together a coalition, said during a faction meeting. “That’s our first test. To see if we can find smart compromises in the coming days to achieve the greater goal.”

Nevertheless, Lapid said Israel could enter a “new era” within a week.

If Lapid forms a government, Edelstein will ask to delay the Likud party primaries to give himself time to solidify his challenge. However, this will require a change in party procedure that will need to be ratified by committees still staffed by Netanyahu loyalists.

Edelstein is popular in Likud, placing first in the most recent primaries. Netanyahu competed in a separate leadership primary against Gideon Sa’ar, who later left Likud to form the New Hope party, now part of the “change bloc.”

Edelstein is not the only one eyeing Netanyahu’s throne.

Finance Minister Israel Katz at Tel Aviv’s Ichilov Medical Center on December 20, 2020. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Finance Minister Israel Katz told Likud activists on Sunday that in an attempt to prevent the party’s fall from power, he had suggested that Netanyahu step aside temporarily to enable the formation of a right-wing government.

The development confirmed several reports in Hebrew media over the past two months that were vehemently denied by Katz at the time.

Katz wrote that he recently proposed to Netanyahu that he hold fresh primaries for the party leadership, with the winner replacing the incumbent as prime minister for a single year, after which Netanyahu would presumably return.

Katz apparently thought this would allow right-wing parties that oppose Netanyahu personally, including Sa’ar’s New Hope, to join the government. Katz believed he would win the primaries and temporarily become prime minister.

“I believed my chances of election were high, due to my roots in the movement and my extensive experience and the senior positions in which I successfully served as agriculture, transportation, intelligence, foreign, and now finance minister,” Katz said.

Then-education minister Naftali Bennett (left) with former interior minister Gideon Sa’ar during Jerusalem Day celebrations at the Western Wall, on May 17, 2015. (Flash90)

Netanyahu rejected the offer.

Channel 12 political analyst Amnon Abramovich on Sunday night quoted two unnamed Likud ministers expressing their dismay over Netanyahu’s refusal to put party interests ahead of his own.

“What’s astounding is that he’s prepared to give the premiership to [rivals Benny] Gantz, to [Naftali] Bennett or to Sa’ar, that he’s prepared to go into the opposition — just so long as there is not a different candidate [for prime minister] from Likud,” Abramovitch quoted them as saying about Netanyahu.

In the light of Katz’s proposal, the long-serving prime minister’s political demise, should it take place, would at least partly stem from his own refusal to temporarily step aside and allow a right-wing government to be formed with a different Likud leader at the helm.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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