Meet the Six Contenders Vying to Replace the Embattled Netanyahu as Israel's Prime Minister

As Netanyahu's legal troubles mount, six men are positioning themselves for the post-Bibi era: Yisrael Katz, Gideon Sa’ar, Naftali Bennett, Avigdor Lieberman, Avi Gabbay and Yair Lapid

Gideon Sa'ar, Naftali Bennett, Avi Gabay, Benjamin Netanyahu, Yair Lapid, Avigdor Lieberman, and Yisrael Katz.
Gil Eliahu, Ofer Vaknin, Moti Milrod, Emil Salman, Israel Sellem

Six men are currently vying to be Israel’s next prime minister, waiting patiently for the departure of the incumbent. They are Yisrael Katz, Gideon Sa’ar, Naftali Bennett, Avigdor Lieberman, Avi Gabbay and Yair Lapid.

It is a frustrating position to be in. Israeli politics have no term-limits, fixed election dates or a clear succession process. None of them have the slightest idea when they may be given the chance. It takes a particular form of resilience to remain an Israeli prime-minister-in-waiting for long. It is a small wonder then that the list of potential candidates is continuously being refreshed.

The six are hardly an inspiring cross-section of Israeli society. All male, Jewish, in or around their fifties and members of the comfortable upper-middle class. At least three of them are millionaires. Four live in the Tel Aviv urban region and one is a settler. Three are career politicians. Three had successful careers before joining politics relatively recently. Only one was born outside of Israel. None are left-wingers. All of them have voted Likud in the past, though only two are currently Likudniks and two are vaguely centrist.

Meanwhile, Benjamin Netanyahu is going nowhere. If, as looks increasingly likely, he’s indicted over the next few months in one of the two corruption cases he’s a clear suspect in, he has every intention to brazen it out at the Prime Minister’s Office using the interminable hearings and court sessions. He’ll drag it out for years. Resignation isn’t an option.

And for now, at least, none of the parties in his governing coalition have an interest in jumping ship. They control key ministries, and in Netanyahu they have a weak prime minister who isn’t about to block their pet policies. Don’t bet against this government serving its full term into late 2019.

Benjamin Netanyahu info graph

But that doesn’t mean Netanyahu is invulnerable. New evidence against him could emerge in the bribery case concerning Israel’s procurement of German submarines, and in the fraud case at telecommunications giant Bezeq in which he’s not, at least not yet, an official suspect. One of the (so far) two state’s witnesses could reveal something particularly damning – something that even the coalition partners willing to swallow Netanyahu’s “gifts from friends” worth hundreds of thousands of shekels and influence peddling with tabloid owners wouldn’t be able to ignore. They would have to demand his departure.

Netanyahu could make a political blunder, misreading the polls and the public’s indifference, and call an early election as he did in December 2014, in the hope of securing yet another mandate. And lose.

At this point no one knows how or when it will end, but in Jerusalem there’s an atmosphere of the Netanyahu era drawing to a close. The accumulation of investigations and testimony is being stoked by the hysteria from Netanyahu and his circle against those who want to “depose a serving prime minister” by undemocratic means – a hysteria that’s increasingly reminiscent of the last days of Netanyahu’s first term in 1999.

But unlike back then, when it was clear that Labor leader Ehud Barak was about to beat Netanyahu in the short-lived experiment of directly electing the prime minister, no party boasts a front-runner. At this stage, all the aspiring candidates can do is try to position themselves for the day Bibi goes.

None of the potential PMs are actually competing against Netanyahu. They’re jockeying for position in respective races. As things stand, there are three dueling duos in three separate reality shows – reality shows because Netanyahu is still firmly in place and no election is on the horizon.

The next top Likudnik

The next top Likudnik

Historically, the Zionist Revisionists – right-wing Zionists – have not indulged in regicide. Since this party’s founding in 1923 by Zeev Jabotinsky, it has had only five leaders. Netanyahu, if he holds on until early 2018, will be the second-longest-serving leader after Menachem Begin. He is already the Likud leader who has won the most elections (four) and served the longest as prime minister (11 years and counting). Whatever happens, he won’t be pushed out by party members. His potential rivals in Likud know this and don’t plan to challenge him.

The entire generation of Likud leaders who were around when Netanyahu arrived in politics in 1987 has retired and many of those who came later have already given up and left. For those remaining, it’s a frustrating waiting game of trying be in position when Netanyahu decides or more likely is forced by extraneous forces to leave. At this point, only two names stand out as possible contenders if Netanyahu leaves in the near future.

Yisrael Katz and Gideon Sa’ar are quietly facing off to be the next top Likudnik. It’s a dangerous game as no one wants to be seen too publicly as the successor while the party’s rank and file are demanding absolute loyalty to the current leader. But there’s no mistaking these politicians’ maneuvers.

Transportation Minister Katz (who turns 62 next month) is currently the only truly senior Likud minister besides the prime minister. With all the top cabinet jobs doled out to coalition partners, Katz has been forced to make do with the same position for eight years. As a sop to his seniority, Netanyahu added to his portfolio in 2015 membership in the security cabinet and also made him intelligence affairs minister.

Over the last year, Katz has been quietly staffing this previously insignificant ministry with former senior army officers and intelligence officials. Combining his two jobs, in recent months he has presented interesting plans to build a $10 billion artificial island off Gaza – to help supply the Strip while keeping weapons out – and new railway lines from Israel across the Middle East.

Whether or not these plans have any chance of materializing is beside the point. Katz, who has recently taken to briefing the foreign media as well, adding to his team press officers fluent in English, Arabic and other languages, is trying to forge a more nuanced image. Hugely popular among Likud members, outside the party he’s seen as little more than a wily political hack and doctrinaire security hawk. His makeover is still in the making, as it were, and has included his shedding of at least 10 kilos (22 pounds).

Netanyahu at least sees Katz as a serious rival. Last year, when Katz clashed with the ultra-Orthodox parties over infrastructure repair work on Shabbat, the prime minister’s aides claimed that the transportation minister was trying to provoke a coalition crisis with the Haredim and threatened to fire him. Katz stood his ground but has been more careful of late about sticking his head above the parapet.

Sa’ar, 50, the suave Tel Aviv lawyer who moonlights as a DJ, is married to Channel 1’s senior anchor Geula Even and has recently ended his time-out from frontline politics. He cuts a much more dashing figure than Katz, a resident of a moshav (agricultural community) in the south. In late 2014 Sa’ar announced his time-out – another Likudnik who got tired of waiting for Netanyahu to leave. In April he returned, interestingly choosing Likud’s tiny branch in the northern city of Acre as his venue, the furthest spot from Tel Aviv.

“He understands that strategically he needs to back in Likud now,” said one of his closest allies in the party. “It takes time to position yourself for a comeback, and being more than two years out of politics is risking irrelevancy.”

Sa’ar’s advantage over Katz is his younger and more sophisticated image. Katz, however, has a crucial edge – he’s currently a Knesset member. If Netanyahu leaves before the next election and the coalition remains intact and supports a new prime minister instead of opting for an early election, Sa’ar can’t replace him as leader, since only a sitting MK can become prime minister. In the still unlikely event that Netanyahu is forced to resign before 2019, Katz is best positioned to be Israel’s next prime minister. If he holds on until 2019 or beyond, Sa’ar will be back in the Knesset and a strong candidate.

There are of course other aspiring ministers who see themselves as leadership contenders on the day after Netanyahu – Gilad Erdan, Yuval Steinitz, Miri Regev and Tzachi Hanegbi to mention but four. But none of them have the combination of widespread support in the party and political skills that would make them serious candidates alongside the Katz-Sa’ar duo.

Extreme right-wing makeover

In the nearly quarter of a century since taking over Likud, Netanyahu has dominated the movement, transforming it from a grassroots ideological outfit into his personal platform. This was true even of the six years between 1999 and 2005 when Ariel Sharon nominally led the party, with Netanyahu in the wings waiting to return. Bibi has never nurtured any deputies, and he has quickly cut any potential successors down to size.

In this period, most of the more influential people on the right wing have left the party, some more than once. Netanyahu’s departure, whenever it comes, will be the signal for a realignment within the right; those who felt starved of oxygen under his long reign will be looking for a way back.

The right-wing candidates

Bennett and Avigdor Lieberman see themselves as Likud leaders in the post-Netanyahu era. Both men were close to Netanyahu in the past, and both left Likud to establish satellite parties – and in doing so created an independent power base they plan to use to mount a triumphant return. As leaders of coalition partners, they have a higher public profile and have extricated more senior posts from Netanyahu than the Likud ministers – and with it more top-level experience as prime ministerial candidates. They will propose Likud their own parties as a dowry in a merger.

Education Minister Bennett, 45, has on paper more to offer. His Habayit Hayehudi party, the re-branded old National Religious Party, is a natural twin for Likud, which has drifted so far to the right and become more religious in its makeup as to be nearly indistinguishable from Bennett’s party. Not everyone in Habayit Hayehudi would join in a merger – the Haredi-ultra-nationalist Tekumah branch would almost certainly remain independent, but Bennett would make the case that Likud under his leadership could broaden its appeal to both more right-wing and more religious voters. Moldova-born Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu is smaller and its electoral base is dwindling, as fewer immigrants from the former Soviet Union are inclined to vote for a “Russian party.”

Yisrael Beiteinu is currently the smallest party in the Knesset (tied with the left-wing Meretz) with only five MKs. Besides, there was a previous unsuccessful attempt to merge the two parties in the 2013 election. Likud Beiteinu then lost 11 seats from the total the two parties held in the previous Knesset. Lieberman will have his work cut out trying to convince Likudniks to repeat that experiment.

On the other hand, Lieberman, 59, is the serving defense minister and before that was foreign minister. That kind of experience counts. Also, unlike Bennett, whose Likud track record consists of a short stretch as chief of staff for Netanyahu when he led the opposition, Lieberman was Bibi’s right-hand man throughout the ‘90s when the two rebuilt the party. He still has extensive connections there. Either way, both Bennett and Lieberman will have to overcome a great deal of suspicion to take on Katz and Sa’ar, not to mention each other, if they’re to have any hope of leading a post-Netanyahu Likud.

Two other former Likudniks who could try a comeback are the leader of the center-right Kulanu party, Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, and the man Lieberman replaced as defense minister, Moshe Ya’alon. Of the two, Kahlon has a party to offer and is still quite popular inside Likud. But by most accounts, he’s not interested in the pressures of the top job.

Ya’alon, meanwhile, has expressed his intention to run for prime minister but has no independent political base or battalion of supporters waiting for him to return. As a former Israel Defense Forces chief of staff and an outspoken critic of corruption in Netanyahu’s administration (only after leaving), he does have an unrivaled security CV and a Mr. Clean image. That probably won’t be enough.

Center Island

Every election since 2009 and every poll in between have had the same bottom line: The right-wing/religious bloc has retained a small but stable majority of 51 to 53 percent of the vote – the Netanyahu majority. Going back four decades, this majority has been broken only four times.

The centrist candidates

On the other hand, for all the talk of Israel drifting steadily rightward, the right-religious majority hasn’t grown. It remains vulnerable to a centrist leader who can shift enough votes from Likud and its allies. On average this happens every eight years or every three elections. After three consecutive Likud victories and eight years of Netanyahu in power, it should be happening soon. If so, one of two leaders would be delivering the upset.

Avi Gabbay and Yair Lapid are currently neck and neck in the polls. Labor leader Gabbay, ever since his surprise victory in the party’s leadership primary in July, has closed the entire gap Lapid’s Yesh Atid opened over the previous the year; Labor has even taken a small lead. But for now, the two are mainly competing over who will be the next opposition leader. Can either of them lead the center-left to a victory over Likud?

For both candidates, this will be a tall order. Yesh Atid, in existence for only five years, suffers from the lack of a fixed constituency. It has been described by pundits as a “voters’ parking lot” due to the wild fluctuations in it results in the two elections it has competed in, as well as in the opinion polls.

Talk-show-host-turned-populist-politician Lapid, 53, has tried to stick to the middle of the middle of Israeli politics, which basically means a right-of-center mainstream. It worked well in 2013, when Yesh Atid won 19 seats, after which Lapid became finance minister. Two years later competition from center-right Kulanu and Lapid’s lackluster performance in government cut it down to 11 seats.

Labor’s weakness as an opposition party under Isaac Herzog helped Yesh Atid double its strength in the polls, but Gabbay’s ascendance has changed the picture somewhat. Still, even if Yesh Atid does surpass Labor in the next election, Lapid’s path to the Prime Minister’s Office is blocked by the fact that the ultra-Orthodox parties will never join his coalition. It’s hard to see how in Israel’s political arithmetic a centrist coalition can be built without at least one ultra-Orthodox party.

Gabbay, 50, should he prize a few seats from the right bloc (neither he nor Lapid have done so in any poll far), would have an easier time building a coalition. But he’s still unproven in national politics and has to contend with a fractious party of which he has been a member for all of eight months.

He will have to establish control over Labor before he can really take on Lapid, let alone face off against Netanyahu or another right-wing leader in a general election. Gabbay is already touring the country, meeting with voters in Likud strongholds such as Tiberias and Ashdod, and seems to be drawing enthusiastic crowds. Which makes a change for Labor leaders, but it’s still much too early to predict how he would fare in a matchup with Netanyahu, Katz or Sa’ar.

As the son of Moroccan-born immigrants, a centrist and a successful CEO without political baggage, he could be the perfect candidate to attract moderate right-wingers, but the two previous Labor leaders to do so – Ehud Barak and Yitzhak Rabin – both had major security credentials as former IDF chiefs and senior ministers. Gabbay is the first businessman running for prime minister, and there are no precedents for predicting whether this will work in his favor.