Netanyahu’s would-be heirs step out of his shadow, and into the firing line

Now two months in the opposition, the longtime ruling party’s front bench is champing at the bit and jockeying for position to prepare for the day after its leader is gone

Haviv Rettig Gur

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

Then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu is surrounded by senior Likud lawmakers at the Knesset swearing-in ceremony on April 30, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)
Then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu is surrounded by senior Likud lawmakers at the Knesset swearing-in ceremony on April 30, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

On August 5, an internal Likud party committee called the “secretariat” met at the Kfar Maccabiah Hotel in Ramat Gan for a raucous discussion on what to do with the party’s “renegades.”

The new coalition is littered with them, complained party leaders and activists: former Likud MKs and cabinet ministers, mayors and influential activists, who all defected from the party in recent years to pursue their political fortunes elsewhere. Nearly the entire New Hope party is made up of such defectors. Had they not shifted their support to the new Bennett-Lapid coalition, Likud would likely still be the ruling party.

Israel Katz, Likud’s powerful former finance minister and chair of the secretariat, had a proposal for punishing the miscreants: an amendment to the party constitution stipulating that any Likudnik who had left the party wouldn’t be allowed back for eight years.

It wasn’t just about revenge, but about deterring future desertions. Likud had spent three election campaigns feverishly trying to splinter its opponents with lavish promises for potential turncoats — and then watched in horror as its own members, MKs like Gideon Sa’ar, Ze’ev Elkin and Sharren Haskel, jumped in the other direction, tilting the political system just enough toward the anti-Netanyahu camp to drive Likud from power for the first time in 12 years.

Some at the August 5 meeting warned that, like so many other recent maneuvers by the party’s leaders, freezing out deserters could come back to hurt Likud. MK Yoav Kish, for example, asked if it was wise to leave the former defectors with no option but to continue shoring up the current government.

“Even if I have serious criticism of Sharren Haskel, if we discover that we can topple the government [with her help] — I’d bring her back,” he said.

Then-Likud MK Sharren Haskel speaks at a primary campaign event for then-Likud leadership candidate Gideon Sa’ar, in Netanya, December 23, 2019. (Flash90)

But others insisted that other factors were more important: deterrence, taking a principled (if belated) stand against defections, or even just the simple satisfaction of revenge.

MK Miki Zohar’s response to Kish was short and blunt: “Never. I won’t let that happen.”

The final resolution passed by the secretariat had it all: An eight-year cooling-off period for defectors returning to the party, and a similar eight-year freeze on party membership for anyone who served as a minister in a government that pushed Likud to the opposition — a stipulation written specifically for Yamina MKs who had entertained hopes of joining Likud in the future.

So much hot air

It was a dramatic moment, a pointed message to defectors past and future in a party licking its wounds and seeking to reclaim its dignity.

It was also meaningless.

New Hope party leader Gideon Sa’ar, center, alongside party candidates Yifat Shasha Biton, left, and Sharren Haskel, in red, at an election tour at Hatikva market in Tel Aviv on March 17, 2021. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

The secretariat, which is in charge of the party’s daily operations, has no power to amend the constitution. Amendments must pass the constitution committee and be approved by a two-thirds vote in the 4,000-strong Central Committee. Central Committee chair MK Haim Katz noted as much in an angry tirade that dismissed the spectacle as “Israel [Katz]’s childish show.”

For all the noisy pageantry, the bickering and blustering, and the political reporters who went to the trouble of live-tweeting from the hall, nothing had actually happened.

Or, rather, nothing had happened to Likud’s constitution or the possibility of defectors returning to the party fold.

But the spectacle had a different purpose, and to its chief organizer, secretariat chair Katz, it had succeeded beautifully.

Then-foreign minister Israel Katz of Likud on an election campaign tour of the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem on September 16, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

It was the opening gambit in Katz’s race to replace Netanyahu as party leader. And after the events of August 5, other aspirants to the Likud throne understood they needed to take steps to catch up.

Hard times

Likud has had a poor time in the opposition so far. It’s not just that after 12 years in power, it had forgotten just how dull and frustrating it can get out of power. It’s also the galling fact that it was pushed out of leadership by a strange hybrid sort of government led by a six-seat faction; that this oddball government is proving more stubbornly resilient than anyone had guessed; and that the party is learning the hard way that among those defectors, the targets of so much rage, are some of its most experienced and successful parliamentary handlers.

Netanyahu is the most popular single politician in Israel, but he’s also the most disliked politician in Israel

But more than any of that is the vexing fact that the party’s unassailable leader seems to be the cause of its troubles.

A poll released Saturday night by Channel 12 showed what nearly every poll and ballot-box result in two years has confirmed: Even now, even with the pandemic surging back and the public convinced (59% to 35% in a Friday poll) that the Bennett government is bungling its response, a Likud led by Netanyahu still doesn’t have a viable coalition — while a Likud led by someone else does.

Then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses supporters as he tours the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem on March 22, 2021, a day ahead of election day. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)

Growing numbers of Likud MKs and activists are beginning to feel trapped in Netanyahu’s shadow.

The trap is real, and there’s no obvious way out. Netanyahu is the most popular single politician in Israel — overwhelmingly so on the right — but he’s also the most disliked politician in Israel, with entire parties and large swaths of the electorate that were determined to remove him.

That Saturday poll gave 32 seats to a Likud led by Netanyahu, more than 10 seats ahead of second-place Yesh Atid — but still with no clear path to a coalition.

The poll then asked about a Likud led by the next-in-line favorite for party leader, former Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat (the very fact that the question about an alternative Likud leader was asked is a reflection of something changing in the air). Barkat did much worse than Netanyahu, drawing just 24 seats for Likud under his leadership. Fully half of Likud’s eight lost seats went rightward, pushing Religious Zionism from a six-seat party at Netanyahu’s side to a 10-seat one with Barkat helming the right.

But Barkat’s leadership opens possibilities Netanyahu doesn’t have: For example, he could lead a coalition that brings right-wing parties like Yamina, New Hope and Yisrael Beytenu back to the right. Parties led by people repeatedly scarred by Netanyahu’s broken promises might give a new Likud leader a chance to prove he’s different.

Likud’s Nir Barkat, center, tours the market in Ashdod on April 3, 2019, ahead of election day. (Flash90)

As Likud MK David Bitan put it bluntly in an August 11 radio interview with the Haredi radio station Kol Barama, Likud was denied a government by Netanyahu’s credibility problem.

“I think Benny Gantz wants to be prime minister with Likud’s support,” Bitan said. (Gantz could do so by leaving the current governing coalition and joining with Likud to form a new one. Gantz has reportedly been offered as much by Netanyahu.) “But he’s afraid that as soon as he comes over to us, Netanyahu will force snap elections. I can say that in my view, Netanyahu and the Likud learned their lesson” — about the consequences of serial promise-breaking to prospective coalition partners — “and if Gantz wants to be prime minister, he’ll get it and Likud will give it to him.”

It’s an extraordinary quote that sums up neatly Likud’s frustration with Netanyahu: When you can’t be trusted to fulfill coalition agreements, it’s awfully hard to find coalition partners.

Netanyahu draws more voters but cannot win elections. Barkat draws fewer voters and would preside over a less energized base but, polls say, would likely return Likud to power with a broad and relatively stable coalition.

No wonder, then, that Barkat took a commanding lead when Channel 12’s pollsters asked Likud voters about potential replacements to Netanyahu. Barkat was named as the favorite heir to Netanyahu by 31 percent of respondents, followed in distant second place by Miri Regev (12%), Avi Dichter (9%), Yuli Edelstein (6%), Israel Katz (5%) and Tzachi Hanegbi (3%).

The feeling that they are trapped by Netanyahu’s politicking is growing in Likud, and it’s sparking the first serious glimmers of the post-Netanyahu leadership scramble. They smell blood, and the signals of rebellion are multiplying.

A supporters conference hosted and funded by Likud MK Nir Barkat in Tel Aviv on June 10, 2021. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Where are the Mizrahim?

On August 12, Miri Regev engineered her own primary-bid dust-up in an interview with the Yedioth Ahronoth daily.

“I want a Mizrahi prime minister,” she said, referring to Jews of North African or Middle Eastern heritage. “I think the Mizrahim, Likud members, over the years chose white people to lead them. I think the day after Netanyahu, Likud members will have to do some soul-searching…. If Likud members continue to choose leaders with white DNA, a different Likud will rise, a real Mizrahi Likud.”

Regev has a point. Nearly the entire cadre of Likud’s leadership hopefuls is male and Ashkenazi, of European heritage. And few have wielded Mizrahi identity and old memories of marginalization to greater political effect than Netanyahu. Regev is taking Netanyahu’s longtime tactic to its logical conclusion. Despite winning a majority of the Mizrahi vote since the 1970s, Likud has never been led by a Mizrahi Jew. It was time to change that, suggested Regev, nee Siboni, daughter of a Moroccan immigrant.

And, she threatened, if Likud failed to diversify its leadership, maybe it was time for its Mizrahi base to turn elsewhere.

Then-transportation minister Miri Regev attends a ceremony inaugurating the new light rail in the central Israeli city of Petah Tikva, June 10, 2021. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Regev clarified in the interview that her words were not meant as a challenge to Netanyahu. While he’s in the game, “I support him fully. But the day after Bibi, the game changes.”

Regev may have defended Netanyahu, but she also sparked a new phase in the race to replace him — and in doing so highlighted his weakness.

Likud scuttlebutt indicates that Netanyahu is displeased by Regev’s comments. Sources said to be close to Netanyahu told Yedioth on August 15 that “the damage Miri Regev did to herself is unprecedented. This broke all bounds, crossed the boundaries of discussion in Likud, when she uses terms like ‘black’ and ‘white.’ Her words exposed her ignorance and lack of understanding of Likud.”

But Regev only doubled down. The firestorm, after all, was the point. She has a long way to climb in the polls if she wants to challenge Barkat.

“I know I’m touching the exposed nerves of Israeli society,” she told Yedioth. “But it can’t be that for 73 years, they haven’t found a Mizrahi worthy of serving as chief justice of the Supreme Court or as prime minister…. The day after [Netanyahu], Likud must grow a Mizrahi leadership.”

Then-culture minister Miri Regev speaks to reporters after voting in her hometown of Rosh Ha’ayin on September 17, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

The battle is joined, and then joined again

That’s the rhythm of this new game. Regev, Barkat, Katz — all suddenly mounting aggressive post-Netanyahu leadership challenges while insisting they support Netanyahu wholeheartedly.

Yuli Edelstein suggested he might challenge Netanyahu directly in the next primary, in the spirit of the party’s democratic tradition. On August 13, Tzachi Hanegbi announced that “after the Netanyahu era, I’ll run for Likud leader. I’m the most veteran MK and the most experienced minister.”

And last week, Amir Ohana joined the fray, criticizing the mad rush to replace Netanyahu and lashing Regev specifically for her populist appeal to her Mizrahi roots. And who better to know when an appeal to one’s Mizrahi roots is shallow and callous, Ohana told Kol Barama radio on August 16, than a Moroccan like himself?

“Anyone who now speaks about becoming Likud leader after Netanyahu, in their hearts wants that day to come…. It seems there are those in Likud who feel the Netanyahu era is over. They’re wrong,” Ohana said.

Then-public security minister Amir Ohana of Likud seen at Likud party headquarters in Jerusalem on elections night, March 23, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Then he added: “I don’t want the public to vote for me because I’m Moroccan, but because of my abilities.”

Ohana’s ostensible dislike for post-Netanyahu chatter is belied by his constant mention of it over the past two weeks, most recently before an audience Saturday in Petah Tikva, where he even reiterated his insistence that his Mizrahi roots, which he only brought up to explain their unimportance, are irrelevant to his qualifications for party leadership.

That is, even Ohana’s criticism of the post-Netanyahu jostling is part and parcel of it. As the candidates scramble to shape their campaigns and make their case for party leadership, Ohana has chosen to run on unflagging loyalty to Netanyahu and an emphasis, in the face of Regev’s new ethnic campaign, on his Mizrahi roots.

Gantz the savior

As the cacophony builds, helped by Netanyahu’s decision to vacation for the past two weeks in far-off Hawaii, the party leader seems to have gotten the message.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz attends a conference in the Eshkol region, southern Israel, on July 13, 2021. (Flash90)

That, at least, was how Likudniks understood last Thursday’s report in Israel Hayom, Netanyahu’s journalistic home base, that he was considering offering Benny Gantz the prime minister’s chair without rotation in a bid to pull him away from the Bennett-Lapid coalition. If true, the move would mark a reversal of Netanyahu’s original betrayal of Gantz last year that ultimately led to Likud’s new turn in the opposition.

No one in Likud really believes Netanyahu would let Gantz serve out a term as prime minister unimpeded. But the very leak of such an offer to an emphatically pro-Netanyahu outlet has caused a stir.

Netanyahu, it is said in the party, is signaling that he has heard the frustration, that he sees the danger of the primary race taking shape under his nose, and that he understands he must find Likud a path back to power before the voices of frustration — those who notice that Likud remains in the opposition for the benefit of its leader, not the party — multiply.

Netanyahu plans to keep fighting. His next chance to topple the government comes in the budget votes next month. Last week, Likud MKs received invitations to a special study session in the coming days about the government’s new budget bill. Netanyahu’s former economic adviser Avi Simhon will lay out for the MKs the principal directions of the new budget — and possible lines of attack in the parliamentary battle over its passage.

Likud MKs vote to back then-incumbent Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein for another term in the position, during a faction meeting at the Knesset, on April 30, 2019. (Raoul Wootliff/Times of Israel)

Whatever the polls say about his ballot-box prospects, Netanyahu is still the overwhelming favorite among the Likud faithful, an icon of the party and of the political right who gives every indication he won’t go quietly. Likud has had just four leaders in 73 years; it does not oust leaders against their will. The past three weeks, then, don’t signal his collapse as leader.

But they are a sign of what life will be like if Likud’s stay in the opposition drags on.

Netanyahu’s basic case for leading his party was simple: He won elections. If he can no longer deliver those victories — if, indeed, he is the obstacle preventing his party from winning without him — his position will grow tenuous, his control over his party will weaken, and his prospects for returning to the Prime Minister’s Office at the head of a unified and triumphant Likud will grow dimmer.

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