No longer prime minister, Netanyahu tries to keep Likud crown from slipping away too

The opposition leader is busy battening down the hatches, as former allies lay the groundwork to mount challenges for the party leadership

Benjamin Netanyahu walks next to MKs Yuli Edelstein and Nir Barkat in the Knesset on October 11, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Benjamin Netanyahu walks next to MKs Yuli Edelstein and Nir Barkat in the Knesset on October 11, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Life in the opposition is tough. Six months after losing the premiership, Likud head Benjamin Netanyahu is busy fending off challenges to his enduring control of the party.

“All empires fall,” the old saw goes, to which Hebrew-speakers add, “Some fall very slowly.” That is how Netanyahu’s Likud is being viewed from the Knesset, as he jousts with formerly loyal deputies seeking to oust him: an old empire dying slowly.

To prepare, the former premier has been working to rid the party rolls of members who oppose his rule, shoring up alliances and taking aim at Likud’s internal tribunal.

Netanyahu’s biggest recent move was to push former minister Israel Katz out of his inner circle.

The ex-premier, long known for throwing loyalists under the bus, went full bore against Katz, starting with a Twitter tirade accusing him of undermining Likud interests.

The party leader’s beef, as it turned out, was what he saw as Katz working with the New Likudniks, a flank within Likud comprising some 7,000 voters who avowedly would prefer new party leadership over Netanyahu.

Netanyahu’s rant appeared to be him blowing off steam after the New Likudniks won a battle in Likud’s internal court, which blocked an attempt by Netanyahu-backed elements to oust members of the group wholesale from the party. That ruling means they will have a say in the next primary and leadership contest.

Before the blowup, Katz had served for years under Netanyahu as a faithful cabinet member, filling the roles of finance minister, acting foreign minister and, for a decade, transportation minister.

Transportation Minister Israel Katz, left, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netnayahu during a test drive of the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv express train in central Israel on September 20, 2018. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Through it all, Katz was viewed as willingly obsequious to Netanyahu. Even when he finished second on the slate in the party’s 2019 primary, he bowed to Netanyahu’s will.

That included holding up the 2020 budget proposal, a move that allowed Netanyahu to wiggle out of his power-sharing rotation deal with Benny Gantz. Katz, as finance minister, lost a considerable amount of credibility over his refusal to present a budget, and will likely be remembered as the first-ever in that role to purposefully keep the country from functioning within a timely overall financial framework.

As acting foreign minister in 2019 and 2020, Katz acted largely as a deputy to Netanyahu. He did not make any nominations or push policy initiatives, instead holding the post in name only while Netanyahu managed the country’s diplomatic affairs.

Yet even while being slavishly loyal to Netanyahu, Katz made no secret of his ambition to one day lead the party — making it clear, though, that he had no designs on the party leadership as long as Netanyahu was around.

But resignation and retirement are the furthest things from Netanyahu’s mind, as he has noted in many conversations with reporters, including this one. So Katz, who wields some internal power as head of the Likud secretariat, is forced to wait in the wings. In the meantime, though, the squabble has turned him into the flagbearer of the party’s moderate flank.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) casts a vote with his wife Sara at a polling station in Jerusalem during the Likud leadership primary on December 26, 2019. (Courtesy)

Stopping the money

Netanyahu is facing a more direct challenge from former Knesset speaker Yuli  Edelstein, who has announced that he will run for party leadership in the next primary.

Edelstein commands considerable popularity in Likud. In 2019, he was the top vote-getter in the primary for potential Knesset candidates, which determines the order of the Knesset slate below the party leader.

He has a potentially powerful backer in his father-in-law Leonid Nevzlin, a former oil magnate and influential philanthropist. Nevzlin, who owns a partial stake in the Haaretz newspaper, is also a main benefactor of ANU-The Museum of the Jewish people, which is head by his daughter, Edelstein’s wife Irina Nevzlin. Nevzlin’s support will be key to Edelstein mounting a serious challenge to Netanyahu.

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein speaks during a press conference about the coronavirus at the Health Ministry in Jerusalem, June 28, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/ Flash90)

Edelstein has adopted a strategy that has seen him prod Netanyahu over his toxic standing with politicians outside of his right-religious bloc.

While Likud has consistently garnered the most votes in the past few elections, “we failed to establish a national unity government led by Likud four times,” Edelstein has said, taking a barely disguised swipe at the party leader. “If we don’t do some serious soul-searching at home, we’ll stay in the opposition for many years to come.”

Had Edelstein voiced this subversive idea while he was Knesset speaker or health minister, he would have been out of a job. But now, in the opposition, Netanyahu has little power and almost no leverage.

Still, he does have some tricks up his sleeve, such as a campaign finance reform gambit with which he nearly managed to neutralize Edelstein and another potential challenger: former Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat.

Barkat, a tech multimillionaire who entered politics more than a decade ago, has poured his fortune into his campaigns; he boasts of insisting on a salary of only NIS 1.

MK David Amsalem (R) and then-Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat in Jerusalem, on June 6, 2016 (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

But last month, MK David Amsalem, often seen as Netanyahu’s attack dog, proposed a bill that would have limited the ability of wealthy candidates to self-finance political campaigns, thus placing significant curbs on Edelstein’s and Barkat’s ability to use large donations or their own wealth to run against Netanyahu.

Alas for its supporters, the bill failed to pass in the Knesset (though the coalition is planning on bringing forward its own version of the legislation as well).

Then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu reads a book during a Knesset plenum session on March 12, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Any leadership contest is still a far way off, and polls have shown Netanyahu still the most popular leader of the Likud party and of the right wing as a whole. But some polls have also shown a Barkat-led Likud being able to form a coalition, a goal that eluded Netanyahu time and again in recent years.

And there are signs that the base may be getting fed up with his maneuvering. Recently, Eliraz Sade, a former popular Likud TV anchor (and “Big Brother” reality TV show winner), took to Twitter to complain.

“If Netanyahu claims to be a leader for Mizrahi Jews, people who live in outlying areas and small business owners, why doesn’t he talk about [issues they face]?” Sade wrote. “Why doesn’t he care about them?”

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