Why Likud MKs aren’t trying to replace Netanyahu, yet

Despite likely failing to form a coalition for the second time and as legal woes close in on him, the PM’s still managing to fend off potential contenders from within his own party

Raoul Wootliff

Raoul Wootliff is a former Times of Israel political correspondent and Daily Briefing podcast producer.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the launch of his Likud party's election campaign in Ramat Gan, March 4, 2019.(Aharon Krohn/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the launch of his Likud party's election campaign in Ramat Gan, March 4, 2019.(Aharon Krohn/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has until October 25 to inform President Reuven Rivlin that he has either managed to form a coalition or, alternatively, that he has been unable to do so in the 28 days allotted to him. If he fails, Rivlin could give him a 14-day extension, but is widely expected to instead give the mandate to form a government to Blue and White leader Benny Gantz, who would then have 28 days of his own to try a muster a Knesset majority.

And so, for the first time in his 10 years of consecutive rule as prime minister, while simultaneously facing possible indictments in three corruption cases against him, Netanyahu could lose exclusive official control over Israel’s political system, leaving his legal fate in Gantz’s hands as he looks on from the side.

Netanyahu’s failure to form a coalition following the April election dented his reputation as the invincible prince of Israeli politics. A second failure, this time in the wake of September’s repeat election and as the attorney general considers the charges against him, could destroy it.

But while Blue and White is banking on the declining value of the prime minister’s political capital spurring a rebellion within the ranks of the ruling party — Gantz has refused to join in a coalition with Netanyahu so long as the prime minister is facing indictment, and has hoped that another prominent Likud figure might lead a Likud breakaway and join forces with him — Netanyahu has so far managed to avert any potential internal challenge to his rule, at least any that could see him face off against Likud a rival in the near future.

Earlier this month, Netanyahu had mulled a party leadership vote, anticipating he would emerge as the undisputed winner, as a way of bolstering his status as the unchallenged leader of Likud and signaling to other parties that there would be no mutiny against him.

But as soon as Likud announced the prospect of a leadership contest, popular former minister Gidon Sa’ar, perhaps the prime minister’s greatest opponent within the party, signaled he would be a contender. “I’m ready,” Sa’ar tweeted.

Likud MK Gideon Sa’ar attends a Likud faction meeting at the opening of the 22nd Knesset in Jerusalem, on October 3, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Netanyahu quickly walked back the proposal for primaries, opting instead for a party vote to reaffirm its backing for him as its leader and candidate for prime minister. While Sa’ar had for the first time made explicit his intention to challenge Netanyahu at the next opportunity, he was content to postpone his run, saying he was not pushing for primaries to be held now.

“The putsch is dead,” Likud said in response to Sa’ar’s announcement — a curious choice of words given that the party had itself suggested the leadership contest, but an accurate summation of a challenge to Netanyahu’s ongoing hold.

Here are four reasons why members of the ruling party, Sa’ar included, are not actively seeking to replace Netanyahu, even amid his coalition and legal struggles. At least, for now.

1. ‘Likud has never replaced its leader’

Since adopting the primary system in 1992, the Labor party, Likud’s traditional chief rival, has never stuck with same leader for two consecutive terms. The closest it has come to leadership continuity was voting for Ehud Barak twice — a decade apart, in 1999 and 2007.

It’s been a dizzying shuffle of leaders (get ready): Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated in 1995 and Shimon Peres succeeded him. Peres was replaced by Barak in 1997 after losing the general election the year before to Netanyahu. Barak was replaced by Binyamin Ben-Eliezer in 2001 after Barak’s election loss to Likud’s Ariel Sharon that year. Amram Mitzna defeated Ben-Eliezer for party leader in 2002, but was himself soon replaced by Peres after the loss to Sharon’s Likud in the 2003 elections. Amir Peretz defeated Peres for the party leadership in 2005, then lost to a revivified Barak in 2007 in the wake of the previous year’s Second Lebanon War. Barak abandoned the party in 2011, triggering a leadership race won by Shelly Yachimovich, who then lost the top spot just two years later to Isaac Herzog. Herzog, despite a relatively strong showing in the 2015 elections, was still roundly beaten by Netanyahu’s center-right Likud, paving the way for his eventual replacement by Avi Gabbay. And then, after leading the party to its worst ever election result in April, Gabbay was replaced by a returning Peretz before September’s vote.

Likud prime ministers Menachen Begin (left) and Yitzhak Shamir. (Israel Government Press Office)

“We do things differently from the Labor party,” said Eli Hazan, the Likud party’s foreign affairs director.

“Likud has never replaced its leader. It has always given them trust until they chose to step down,” Hazan said, noting that in contrast to Labor’s constant shuffle of new leaders, Likud and its predecessor Herut have only had four leaders in their entire history.

The Likud leadership roll call is indeed simpler: Menachem Begin, who served an incredible 35 years at the helm from the founding of the State of Israel until 1983; Yitzhak Shamir, who replaced Begin and remained leader for a decade until 1993; Ariel Sharon, the leader with the shortest stint, having served as party chairman from just 1999 until 2006 when he broke away from Likud to form Kadima; and Netanyahu, who first led Likud from 1993 to 1999 and then again from 2005 until today.

“And notice,” Hazan continued, “they have all been prime minister. It’s something of a tradition in Likud — not replacing leaders, and them being prime minister.”

2. No clear successor

While Likud members have indeed repeatedly chosen the incumbent over any other challengers, there have in the past at least been contenders to put themselves up against the party leader, prime minister or not.

While a number of senior Likud members, including Sa’ar, have sought to position themselves as the eventual successor to Netanyahu, none has emerged as a clear favorite to do so nor as an obvious heir to Netanyahu’s and Likud’s political legacy.

Netanyahu hasn’t let them.

Since becoming prime minister for the second time in 2009, he has never named a permanent designated deputy who would automatically take over leadership of the country if he were unexpectedly indisposed or removed from office by impeachment. Instead, each time he travels abroad or undergoes a medical procedure under sedation, Netanyahu names a different senior Likud minister as his temporary stand-in.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu waiting for government ministers to join him before a special cabinet meeting for Jerusalem day in Jerusalem, June 2, 2016. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool)

In addition to refraining from naming a deputy, Netanyahu has also lately forgone his former practice of filling the honorary positions of deputy prime minister and vice prime minister.

The deputy and vice PM have no official executive power, and are no more entitled to replace an incapacitated prime minister than other cabinet members, but Netanyahu bestowed the title upon a slew of ministers — both during his first term from 1996 to 1999 and between 2009 and 2015.

In today’s Likud, however, Netanyahu has gone to great lengths to avoid the appearance of playing favorites, even among his closest allies. And in doing so, he has prevented an heir apparent from emerging.

3. Rebel, traitor, successor

Even without an obvious successor, those considered possible candidates to one day take over from Netanyahu — Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, Foreign Minister Yisrael Katz, Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, former Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat, and of course Sa’ar, to name a few — have been unwilling to be the first to take a step against the venerable leader.

Sa’ar’s decision not to push hard for primaries now, even after he announced that he would run against Netanyahu, suggests he may fear being considered to have stabbed Netanyahu in the back.

A Conservative Party press conference in London, May 25, 1983, attended by Premier Margaret Thatcher and Defense Secretary Michael Heseltine. (AP Photo/Press Association)

Such a move could stigmatize the would-be rebel as a traitor, said Jonathan Rynhold, a political scientist at Bar-Ilan University.

“Nobody wants to be Michael Heseltine,” he said, referring to the British politician who in 1990 challenged Margaret Thatcher for the leadership of the Conservative party. Heseltine started the chain of events that toppled the Iron Lady after 11 years, but he lost the subsequent race for the party leadership to John Major.

Those considering an eventual bid for the leadership would prefer another candidate play the Heseltine role and take the heat, clearing their own path to the top.

4. The waiting game

Another reason some senior Likud members may be willing to hold off on a clear leadership bid could be a sense that, with legal woes closing in, Netanyahu’s days are numbered anyway.

“Some MKs think it’s worth waiting to try and win the race against other hopefuls, rather than seeking to seize the mantle from the sitting prime minister himself,” a Likud source, who asked not to be named, told The Times of Israel.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit reportedly plans to decide on whether to indict Netanyahu in the three corruption charges against him by mid-November. Netanyahu faces charges of fraud and breach of trust in Case 1000, Case 2000 and Case 4000. In Case 4000, he also faces a bribery charge.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a tour of the Jerusalem Police headquarters at the Russian compound in Jerusalem, October 7, 2015. (Mark Sellem/Pool)

While being served an indictment as a sitting prime minister would be unprecedented in Israeli history, Netanyahu would not necessarily be forced from office if charges were brought against him. The question however, would likely be brought before the Supreme Court, setting up possible protracted constitutional mayhem as Netanyahu clings on to power.

“It may be inevitable that he has to step down at some point,” the Likud party source summed up. “We don’t know, but some [of his would-be successors] may be betting on it.”

Raphael Ahren contributed to this report.

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