Israel’s Next Next Prime Minister

With these elections barely over, Israel’s leading politicians are already scrapping for position in the next round – which of them could end up at the very top of the heap?

The elections are barely over and the coalition-building has yet to officially begin, but the politicians are already beginning to prepare themselves for the next round. Likud-Beiteinu's humiliation at the polls has stirred up talk of the day-after-Netanyahu within the party. The achievements of both Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett have emphasized the speed with which a newcomer can come to dominate the political scene and the position of Shelly Yacimovich, last week the unquestioned leader of Labor, is now increasingly precarious.

Much of the maneuvering and briefing that will take place over the next few weeks will be directly connected to where the politicians see themselves four years from now (assuming the next elections are held on time) and the intense jockeying for cabinet posts will not only be to control powerful ministries but also to secure better starting positions for the next race.

These elections were a one-horse race – no one threatened Benjamin Netanyahu's premiership. It is hard to imagine the center-left bloc making the same mistake again and not having at least one clear candidate for prime minister. Who will the contenders be?

Right-wing leader

1. Benjamin Netanyahu: Since David Ben-Gurion, no prime minister has served a third consecutive term as prime minister (and a fourth overall) but Netanyahu has yet to indicate he has any intention of resigning of his free will. He is in good health, and will be at the most sixty-eight by the next elections. There has never been a man with such unshakeable self-confidence in his destiny to lead Israel and he has done nothing so far to prepare a successor. Many senior Likud members are now privately criticizing him over the handling of the election campaign, but none of them have yet broken cover and there is no sign that Netanyahu's control of the party has weakened. "A Strong Prime Minister for a Strong Israel," was not just an election slogan, it reflected Netanyahu and his immediate circle's true belief that there is no other man (or certainly woman) capable of leading Israel in this generation. He certainly plans to run again.

Chances: high

2. Avigdor Lieberman: Any talk of Lieberman running for office, any office, will now have to wait until his court case for fraudulently influencing the appointment of an ambassador is over. If he manages to extricate himself without a sentence containing "moral turpitude," he will be back in the game. He now controls a third of Likud-Beiteinu's MKs and has been universally acknowledged as Netanyahu's number two. Lieberman has no reverse gear and a leadership challenge is inevitable. He would probably prefer to manipulate Netanyahu behind the scenes into an orderly succession, but what if Bibi doesn't want to budge? If and when Lieberman's legal saga ends, expect some major undermining of Netanyahu's leadership.

Chances: medium

3. Naftali Bennett: He may have led the national-religious party to its highest point in 36 years, but Bennett has been a member of Habayit Hayehudi for less than a year and before that planned to run as a Likud MK. He still hasn't lost the ambition to lead the larger party and as it is, there are few differences between Likud and Habayit Hayehudi. How he plans to overtake Likud is still unclear, but he will try at some stage to annex at least part of it and run for the top job.

Chances: medium

4. Moshe Yaalon: The former IDF Chief of Staff is convinced no other Likud minister has the necessary qualifications or experience to be the next prime minister. He has made little secret of the fact that he sees himself a future leader of the party. He is popular within Likud ranks, but not that popular – he came in seventh in the most recent primaries. His chances will be greatly influenced by his next job. If Netanyahu appoints him as defense minister, it will be his chance at the big time. But Netanyahu seems reluctant to do so, partly because he doesn't want to make Yaalon his heir apparent. Will resentment at not getting his coveted post motivate him to launch a leadership challenge?

Chances: low

5. Gideon Saar: After twice coming in first in the Likud primaries, Saar can rightly claim to be the most popular minister in the party. As education minister, he successfully (at least in Likud members' eyes) filled a high-profile cabinet post. Saar has burnished his right-wing credentials with initiatives such as taking school children to Hebron and at the same time is a Tel-Aviv urbanite hedonist. He believes he can appeal to all circles, secular liberals and ideological settlers. On the other hand, many in the party are blaming him as campaign chairman for screwing up these elections. Saar is not the type to take on Netanyahu or Lieberman, but he wouldn't let Yaalon or Bennett pluck the leadership without a fight.

Chances: low

Center-left leader

1. Yair Lapid: From the outset, he said he is not ready to be prime minister – not yet. But the 19 Knesset seats he just won and the senior ministerial post he will inevitably receive have positioned Lapid as the center-left's candidate in the next elections. What can still screw it up for him? If he fails to cut a good deal in the coalition talks with Netanyahu, if he doesn't shine as a minister or if the new government fails to implement Yesh Atid's key policies. His party of ambitious and talented new politicians may not stick with him all the way.

Chances: high

2. Shelly Yacimovich – She may have led Labor to a dismal election result that is mainly her fault, but Shelly is a fighter and as leader of the opposition to a government about to cut deeply in social services, she will have a powerful platform over the next few years. But to lead the camp in the next elections, she will have to see off those in the party who are calling for her head following the failure at the polls. Even if she is still party leader at the next elections, she will find it hard to convince anyone that she has better chances than Lapid, who will by then be an experienced minister, of taking on the right's leader in another election.

Chances: medium-high

3. Gaby Ashkenazi: The former IDF Chief of Staff has yet to announce his political preferences, but those close to him are convinced that Gaby Ashkenazi plans to become a politician and that his direction is center-left. Ashkenazi has to overcome two obstacles – the recent Comptroller's report on the Harpaz Affair, which concluded that officers close to him had launched an intensive operation to collect incriminating information on Defense Minister Ehud Barak and the three-year "cooling off" period before he can enter politics. The feeling, though, is that Ashkenazi's wide public popularity was barely dented by the Harpaz affair and that the "cooling off" period will create the perfect timing to join Labor and mount a leadership challenge to Yacimovich. Ashkenazi also has a valuable ally in Opher Eini, secretary-general of the Histadrut Labor Federation, who wields considerable power in Labor and has turned against Yacimovich.

Chances: medium

4. Erel Margalit: One of the pioneers of the Israeli venture-capital sector and self-made multi-millionaire Margalit would seem the ideal candidate. The new MK brings the aura of high-tech start-ups, social entrepreneurship and cosmopolitanism to the Labor Party, currently divided between Yacimovich's young socialists and the old guard of gray hacks. Margalit is already expressing guarded criticism of Yacimovich's campaign and is mulling a leadership bid of his own. But despite his attractiveness, there are still question-marks regarding his political skills. He ran for the leadership in 2011 and was the first of the candidates to drop out. He was expected to reach a high spot on the Labor list but was rather disappointed at only coming tenth in the primaries. On the other hand, if Labor wants its own Yair Lapid, Margalit has the looks, charisma, star-quality and, unlike Lapid, executive experience.

Chances: medium

5. Ehud Olmert: He was forced to resign four years ago over allegations of corruption and, now that he has been acquitted of the more serious charges, is eager to return to the Prime Minister's Office. He dithered until the last moment before these elections and stayed out, throwing his considerable support behind Shaul Mofaz and Kadima. Now that Kadima has scraped into the next Knesset, Olmert has a ready-made political platform for his comeback before the next elections. The only problem is that he still faces an appeal by the state prosecutor over the acquittal in his last case, sentencing on his conviction for breach of trust and the fact that he is the main defendant in the Holyland affair case, in which he is accused of receiving millions of shekels in bribes. Even if he ultimately emerges unscathed from his legal troubles, he will still have to prove that at seventy-plus he has a better chance of leading the center-left camp to victory.

Chances: low

Follow Anshel Pfeffer on Twitter @AnshelPfeffer.

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