Barkat says Netanyahu should have stepped aside; Mossad’s Cohen soars in poll

If Netanyahu hadn’t got his considerations wrong, ‘Likud and the national camp would have been forming the government on Sunday,’ says would-be successor Barkat

Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Likud MK Nir Barkat present the Likud economic plan, during a Likud party event in Tel Aviv on February 16, 2020. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Likud MK Nir Barkat present the Likud economic plan, during a Likud party event in Tel Aviv on February 16, 2020. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Nir Barkat, the former Jerusalem mayor who hopes to succeed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as leader of Likud, said Netanyahu got his “considerations” wrong and should have stepped aside in recent weeks, thus thwarting Sunday’s expected swearing-in of an eight party coalition from across the political spectrum, excluding Likud.

Had Netanyahu moved aside, said Barkat, “Likud and the national camp would have been forming the government on Sunday.”

Barkat spoke in an interview broadcast Saturday as a TV poll showed him in second place, behind former Mossad chief Yossi Cohen, as Likud voters’ preferred candidate to succeed Netanyahu if he were to quit as leader of the party. (Netanyahu has made clear he will lead Likud into opposition if the Naftali Bennett-Yair Lapid coalition is approved by the Knesset, as expected, on Sunday, and has vowed to quickly bring down what he calls “a dangerous left-wing government.”)

Asked who they would back as Likud leader if Netanyahu were to retire, 27 percent of Likud respondents said Cohen, followed by MK Barkat with 16%, according to the Channel 12 news poll.

Cohen is seen as having enjoyed a close personal relationship with Netanyahu throughout his tenure. The premier is widely reported to have cited Cohen in the past as a potential successor.

After Barkat, the poll gave Israel’s Ambassador to the United States and the United Nations Gilad Erdan the backing of 8% of respondents, followed by Finance Minister Israel Katz with 5%, Health Minister Yuli Edelstein with 5%, Knesset Speaker Yariv Levin with 3%, and Transportation Minister Miri Regev with 1%. Another 10% gave other names.

The survey, conducted by pollster Manu Geva, included 504 respondents and had a 4.4 percent margin of error.

Former Mossad chief Yossi Cohen in an interview with Channel 12 broadcast on June 10, 2021 (Channel 12)

Cohen, whose term as head of the spy agency ended earlier this month, said in an interview broadcast Thursday that he didn’t rule out seeking the premiership one day, though he wasn’t contemplating such a move at this moment.

The interview was stunningly candid, and included revelations about Israel’s activities to thwart Iran’s nuclear program.

Likud members at Jerusalem polling station during the party’s leadership primaries on December 26, 2019. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

With the so-called “change bloc” of parties set to be sworn into government on Sunday, Netanyahu has signaled that he plans to remain Likud chair and continue to lead the party in the opposition.

In his interview Saturday, Likud’s Barkat told Channel 12 that “the prime minister erred in his considerations. If the prime minister had said, ‘I’m stepping aside,’ and sought to hold primaries for the leadership of the national camp, my assessment is that the national camp would have unified behind the [winning] candidate.”

The interview was filmed Thursday evening when Barkat held a gathering of some 4,000 Likud activists in Tel Aviv. The function was seen as a show of strength in the party and an indication he will join a growing list of top Likud officials lining up to challenge Netanyahu for the party leadership.

Barkat added that Netanyahu “got his considerations wrong because if he had enabled [primaries], the Likud and the national camp would have been forming the government on Sunday.”

Several parties in the change bloc have said they would be happy to form a coalition with Likud so long as Netanyahu was not leading it.

Barkat also told Channel 12 that he would run for Likud leader when Netanyahu steps down and vowed to win the race. At the Tel Aviv event, Barkat called for leadership primaries to be delayed.

Netanyahu convincingly won Likud primaries in 2019 when he defeated a challenge by former party minister Gideon Sa’ar. Sa’ar then left Likud in 2020 to start the New Hope party, which campaigned on not serving in a government under Netanyahu and intends to be part of the new coalition.

Likud has put off holding another round of primaries since then, amid political turmoil that saw four inconclusive elections in two years.

Meanwhile, the eight-party “change government” alliance, headed by prime minister-designate Naftali Bennett of Yamina and Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid, anticipates winning a 61-59 majority in the confidence vote set for Sunday. If successful, the new government would represent a sea change in Israeli politics, ousting Israel’s longest-serving prime minister.

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