Likud stalwart Steinitz announces retirement weeks before primaries

Former minister, a 23-year veteran of the Knesset, cites need for ‘some fresh air’; primaries expected August 2

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

Then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and then-Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz visit a Leviathan natural gas field processing rig near Caesarea, on January 31, 2019. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool)
Then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and then-Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz visit a Leviathan natural gas field processing rig near Caesarea, on January 31, 2019. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool)

Veteran Likud lawmaker Yuval Steinitz announced on Tuesday morning that he is leaving politics, 23 years after entering the Knesset and just weeks before the opposition’s leading party holds its primaries in anticipation of Israel’s November general election.

Citing the need for “some fresh air,” Steinitz closes a political career that included 12 consecutive years as head of five ministries, most significantly as finance minister from Likud’s 2009 return to power to 2013, and energy minister from 2015 to Likud’s fall into the opposition in 2021.

Although the date is not finalized, Likud primaries are expected on August 2. Its top spot will remain with opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, as the party canceled its leadership primary after MK Yuli Edelstein dropped the idea of vying against the two-decade-long party chief. Likud has had only four leaders since its 1973 founding, including Netanyahu.

The general election is set for November 1, after the Knesset dispersed itself last Thursday following Prime Minister Yair Lapid and Alternative Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s failure to stabilize their shaky coalition. Lapid succeeded Bennett as premier on Friday.

Throughout his years in government and in the Knesset, Steinitz garnered a reputation as a solid, principled lawmaker, who while consistently placing high on the Likud slate was never seen as a threat to Netanyahu for the party’s leadership.

Thanking the Likud party and Israeli citizens “for the rare privilege that has fallen to me to serve the homeland and to influence issues concerning the existence and prosperity of the state,” Steinitz said that he will continue to help in the upcoming election in order to help establish “a quality national government led by Netanyahu and Likud.”

Then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left)  with then-Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz at the Prime Minister’s Conference on Fuel Substitutes in Tel Aviv, October 29, 2018. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Shortly after Steinitz made his announcement, Netanyahu — who had been previously informed — called the former finance minister a “loyal partner in the successful economic policy in which we led Israel to the best decade in its history.”

Netanyahu also claimed credit, with Steinitz, in “a joint struggle to get the gas out of the water,” which he said “has brought tens of billions to the citizens of Israel.”

As energy minister, Steinitz led efforts to develop the offshore Leviathan natural gas field, which started production in 2019.

Last Thursday, Netanyahu staked out reducing Israel’s skyrocketing cost of living as one of his campaign promises.

In addition to helping run the natural gas field development process, Steinitz said he was proud of leading Israel into the OECD, how he handled the 2009-2012 global financial crisis, and uncovering the Syrian nuclear program.

In addition to serving as finance, energy, strategic affairs, intelligence, and international relations ministers in periods between 2009 to 2021, Steinitz chaired the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee from 2003 to 2006.

Edelstein, fellow Likud MK and also a former Foreign Affairs Committee head, called Steinitz, a trained academic, “the most practical philosopher I know.”

Calling Steinitz “a friend and a partner,” Edelstein wrote that the veteran politician “made a tremendous contribution,” saying that “in every field in which you have operated, you have done so thoroughly, professionally and with a real sense of mission.”

Considered one of the moderate members of a party famous for its lawmakers’ combative statements, the soft-spoken Steinitz also drew praise from political opponents.

Bennett tweeted that he was “very sorry” that Steinitz had decided to retire, because he “embodies the essence of good in public service.”

“I am very sorry for the decision of my friend MK Yuval Steinitz to retire from politics. The Israeli public is losing an honest, brave and talented person. Yuval Steinitz embodies… integrity, essence over populism, creativity, healthy skepticism and a deep and pure love for the State of Israel,” Bennett tweeted.

Then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (2nd L), then-Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar (L) then-Minister for Regional Development, Minister for the Development of the Negev and Galilee and Minister of Energy and Water Silvan Shalom (2nd R) and then-Minister of Strategic and Intelligence Affairs Yuval Steinitz (R) attend a session of the Knesset, Israel’s parliament in Jerusalem, on March 19, 2013. (Flash90)

Similarly, Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar — a Likud refugee who formed his New Hope party after unsuccessfully challenging Netanyahu for the helm — said he was “sorry for [Steinitz’s] decision, being that he’s a principled, statesmanlike and practical public official.”

While Steinitz has dropped out of the primary race, several former and new Likud political names have entered, most notably former ambassador to the United Nations Danny Danon, former Likud MK Moshe Feiglin, and Netanyahu economic adviser Avi Simhon.

Likud’s slate is assembled via five methods. First, the party leader, who takes the first slot, is set. The rest of the list is divided between people chosen through a national primary, 10 regional representatives chosen only by the party’s Central Committee, specially held minority slots also chosen during the national primary, and three guaranteed slots for the party leader’s personal picks.

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