AnalysisOnly 'recent' politician who defeated Netanyahu is Sharon

Naming backbencher as minister, Netanyahu ensures he stays Likud’s only big gun

As he assigns cabinet portfolios, is the prime minister deliberately undermining senior Likud members who may pose a political threat?

Shalom Yerushalmi

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

Illustrative: Clockwise from top left: Likud members Israel Katz, Yuli Edelstein, Gideon Sa'ar, and Gilad Erdan. (Flash90)
Illustrative: Clockwise from top left: Likud members Israel Katz, Yuli Edelstein, Gideon Sa'ar, and Gilad Erdan. (Flash90)

With the appointment of Likud ally Amir Ohana — the first openly gay MK in a right-wing party — as justice minister, Prime Minister and Likud Chairman Benjamin Netanyahu continues to undermine the generation of politicians set to succeed him.

Netanyahu tapped Ohana despite the fact that there were plenty of more senior figures in line for the position. Though many may not realize it, this is a perpetuation of the prime minister’s long-held strategy of taking down — on his own or with the help of others — a long line of high-ranking Likud officials who have posed a threat to his leadership over the years.

Fallen by the wayside are dozens of names once considered worthy of replacing Netanyahu as Likud leader — so many, in fact, that there is not enough space to list them all. Among them are David Levy, Moshe Katzav, David Magen, Benny Begin, Silvan Shalom, Roni Milo, Dan Meridor, Moshe Kahlon, and even Moshe Feiglin.

The only one who truly managed to compete with Netanyahu, and even defeat him, was former prime minister Ariel Sharon, who died in 2014.

Now newly-appointed Justice Minister Amir Ohana entertains Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a Likud gathering. (Hadas Porush/ Flash90)

Now, Netanyahu is going over the heads of a new group of politicians who are getting too close for comfort: Yuli Edelstein, who took first place in the Likud primary election; Yisrael Katz, who came in second; as well as Gilad Erdan and Gideon Sa’ar, who came in third and fourth, respectively.

The prime minister’s failure to form a governing coalition last month further complicates the landscape, as no one can be certain how things will shake out following the repeat election called for September 17.

The following is a look at how, by juggling political appointments, Netanyahu is working to weaken the hands of each of his four top Likud rivals.

Yisrael Katz

File: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu talks with Yisrael Katz during a Knesset plenary session, February 8, 2016. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

The newly-appointed foreign minister has received an ostensible upgrade, though he must now bid farewell to the transportation portfolio that, over the past decade, made him the strongest man in the Likud after Netanyahu. Netanyahu had tried several times to separate Katz from the transportation portfolio without success, precisely because of the great deal of power Katz has accumulated.

Although Katz now has the foreign affairs portfolio, and is in line for the title of deputy prime minister, it does not look as though Netanyahu intends to transfer the transportation portfolio to a colleague from the Likud, but rather to someone from the Union of Right-Wing Parties. This will dilute Katz’s political strength.

Katz should hope that the Blue and White party will stick together following September’s elections and continue to refrain from joining a Netanyahu-led government, as the prime minister would in all likelihood happily offer up Katz’s foreign affairs portfolio as well in the hopes of enticing potential partners to join his coalition.

Yuli Edelstein

President Reuven Rivlin and Knesset Chairman Yuli Edelstein at the Plenary Hall during the swearing-in ceremony of Knesset members as a new session opens following the elections, on April 30, 2019 (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

During the Likud’s recent political crisis as Netanyahu struggled unsuccessfully to form a coalition, there was a brief campaign at the party’s fringe to mutiny against the prime minister, oppose early elections, and entrust Edelstein with forming a new government. The idea was immediately shelved.

Edelstein will instead remain Knesset speaker, and, barring any dramatic changes, will run for the presidency — a largely symbolic and benign position — in two years.

Netanyahu does not see Edelstein as dangerous to his political footing, and in the approaching elections has even given him a role in his all-out war against the Yisrael Beytenu party, which, led by Avigdor Liberman, threatens to take a large portion of the Russian vote.

Gilad Erdan

Illustrative: Incoming Israeli Chief of Police Roni Alsheikh and Minister of Internal Security Gilad Erdan toast at the welcoming ceremony held in Alsheikh’s honor, at the National Police Headquarters in Jerusalem, on December 03, 2015. (Hadas Parush/FLASH90)

For many years, Erdan has been one of the Likud’s most popular faces, though he isn’t particularly well-liked by Netanyahu — and is no longer welcome at the family table, so to speak.

The reasons for that lie in multiple ongoing cases in which the prime minister is being investigated for fraud. Netanyahu may perceive Erdan as less than loyal, as he has taken the side of police when Netanyahu attacked their integrity, and has publicly opposed legislation which would rewrite Israel’s basic laws while enabling immunity for the prime minister.

Netanyahu’s close associates unrealistically expect Erdan to use his current role of public security minister to help curtail the investigations against Netanyahu.

Erdan, meanwhile, is distancing himself from the public security portfolio, and it is rumored that Netanyahu is pressing him to take on the role as Ambassador to the UN — a position Erdan has twice turned down in recent years.

Gideon Sa’ar and Moshe Kahlon

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C) and then interior minister Gideon Sa’ar (L) seen at the Knesset on July 9, 2013. (Flash 90)

Gideon Sa’ar, who is also mentioned as an alternative candidate, is being almost officially ostracized. He will not be in the government — neither in the current one nor in the one that Netanyahu plans to form after the elections.

Another figure has been quietly eliminated as well. Moshe Kahlon, who was once one of Netanyahu’s great critics, had left the Likud but is now being reabsorbed into the ruling party with his friends in Kulanu. He will serve as a toothless finance minister.

A trap within a trap

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shakes hands with UTJ’s Meir Porush in the Knesset, on April 29, 2015, after the two parties signed a coalition agreement. To Netanyahu’s right is UTJ leader Yaakov Litzman. (Courtesy, Likud Party)

There are three powerful portfolios in the government that enable their holders to maintain their political power by giving out almost unlimited budgets and political appointments far and wide. These are the transportation portfolio, the housing and construction portfolio, and the interior portfolio.

Likud does not hold these portfolios, and it is not certain that it will after the September elections, as Netanyahu would rather have happy coalition partners than strong ministers inside his party. Additionally, the prime minister has bestowed the justice portfolio, which carries special weight, on relative newcomer Ohana. This is how he smoothly passes over members of the “older generation” of Likud politicians for promotions.

Likud’s high-ranking officials are aware that Netanyahu is shutting them out.

“We’re in a trap within a trap,” a close associate of a Likud minister told Zman Yisrael, the Hebrew language sister site of The Times of Israel. “We can’t get out, either. We’ve gone to these [second] elections because of the trap that Netanyahu is in — he can’t form a government due to his legal situation, so we’re all going to elections.”

“Today, we’re facing elections and can’t speak out against his decisions,” he said. “If you ask the people, everybody realizes, and maybe even hopes, that Netanyahu faces a plea bargain deal that will take him out of the game. And then we’ll start a whole new game.”

This article has been adapted from the Hebrew version on Zman Yisrael, The Times of Israel’s Hebrew language sister site.

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