War of Succession: The Five Men Vying to Replace Netanyahu as Party Leader

From a high-tech millionaire to a Refusenik who spent three years in a Soviet jail, here are the likeliest contenders in Likud to take the crown from King Bibi

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with Nir Barkat, left, and Gideon Sa'ar.
Emil Salman / Gil Cohen Magen

The cracks in Likud solidarity when it comes to supporting the continued reign of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are finally showing.

As the bombshell indictment announcement against Netanyahu collides with the political stalemate that the premier has — after two elections and endless governing coalition negotiations — failed to resolve, members of his party are daring to contemplate, some openly, whether his time has now passed.

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The first bold move to challenge Netanyahu was taken Saturday night by Gideon Sa’ar, who called for an immediate Likud leadership primary — and then made an official request to do so to the party’s leadership. This made him the first high-profile Likud lawmaker to stick his neck out and offer an alternative to the prime minister’s leadership.

Sa’ar’s proposal is a direct attack on Netanyahu, in that he is asking for a vote to take place in time for a new leader to head efforts to form a new Israeli government and prevent a new election being called for next March. Netanyahu is fighting to hold on to the premiership, in order to facilitate a battle for immunity from the charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust that he claims are illegitimate and politically based.

The party’s official response was harsh, saying that Sa’ar shows “zero loyalty and maximum subversion.” Behind the scenes, though, there are signs that Sa’ar may not be alone in seeking to fill Netanyahu’s shoes.

If Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit rules that Netanyahu cannot be given the task of assembling a ruling coalition — with or without a new election — because he has been charged with crimes, the list of challengers may grow.

These are the five Likud lawmakers most likely to vie for the leadership in Netanyahu’s stead...

Gideon Sa’ar

Sa’ar, 52, has long been a thorn in Netanyahu’s side. Of all the prime minister’s rivals within his own party, Sa’ar is the only one Netanyahu has not driven out — unlike the long list of others who left the party to form their own parties, including Avigdor Lieberman, Moshe Feiglin, Moshe Kahlon (although he later returned) and Moshe Ya’alon. Instead, Sa’ar took a different approach. In 2014, after rapidly climbing the Likud leadership ladder and having served as both education and interior minister, and at the peak of his popularity (in both 2008 and 2012, he won the most votes in party primaries, second only to Netanyahu), Sa’ar chose to take a five-year time-out from politics, stepping away before Netanyahu could damage his standing in the party.

After biding his time, Sa’ar made his comeback this year, running for and being elected to the short-lived Knesset session following last April’s election.

His views on the Palestinian issue are as hawkish, if not more so, than Netanyahu’s, firmly opposing a two-state solution. In addition to being well-liked in the party — Netanyahu’s attempts to stymie his success in the primaries failed miserably — Sa’ar has the added advantage of being one half of a power couple: His wife, television anchor Geula Even, is a high-profile, popular journalist.

Gideon Sa'ar at an event in Tel Aviv, February 2019.
Moti Milrod

Nir Barkat

After Sa’ar, Barkat, 60, has been the boldest member of Likud when it comes to openly expressing aspirations for the prime minister’s job, recently suggesting a gentle method of forcing the party to name a successor to Netanyahu. He is proposing holding an election for a deputy to fill in for Netanyahu if the current prime minister should become “incapacitated” by the need to focus on his legal battles. Such a move, Barkat says, “will guarantee support for party leader Benjamin Netanyahu and enable unity in the party and continuity in the government.”

A successful high-tech businessman for a decade before turning to politics, Barkat served as mayor of Jerusalem for 10 years (2008-2018), and has been credited with helping to revitalize the capital.

He enjoyed an action-hero moment in 2015 when he helped thwart a stabbing attack in his city, joining his bodyguards in tackling the perpetrator. He only joined Likud officially in 2017, in the run-up to his debut on the national political stage. In his final year as mayor, he flexed his muscles to win credibility on the right, leading a visible campaign to close down the activities of the UN Relief and Works Agency in Israel’s capital. After he was elected to the Knesset in April, Barkat instantly became the parliament’s wealthiest member, with a fortune estimated at well over $100 million, and — as he did as mayor of Jerusalem — asked to forgo his salary and be paid only 1 shekel (30 cents) per year.

Nir Barkat at the Likud event on the first Election Night of the year in April 2019.
Tomer Appelbaum

Gilad Erdan

Unlike Sa’ar and Barkat, Erdan, 49, is a longtime Netanyahu loyalist — he began his career as an adviser to the prime minister — and, as such, isn’t expected to seek the party’s top job until it is clear that Netanyahu’s time in charge is over. A lawmaker since 2003, Erdan’s profile has soared in the Netanyahu era, during which he has held a long list of ministerial positions, including heading the environmental protection, communications and interior ministries. Since 2015, he has held the dual high-profile posts of public security and strategic affairs minister. He has leveraged the latter portfolio on numerous occasions to burnish his rightist credentials, using it as a high-profile platform to battle the international boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, and leading the charge to prevent BDS activists from entering the country.

Public security and strategic affairs minister Gilad Erdan, June 2019.
Jonathan Zindel / Flash 90

Yisrael Katz

On paper, Katz, 64, has the longest résumé of the main contenders for Netanyahu’s job. He’s served in the Knesset since 1998 and held top ministerial positions, particularly his current post as foreign minister. But unlike other Likud prospects, he is seen as lacking charisma, and Netanyahu is widely seen as installing him as his replacement in the foreign Ministry because he viewed him as having little chance of rivaling his boss on the world stage.

Still, the appointment shows he has Netanyahu’s full confidence and, more often than not, at cabinet meetings he is literally at Netanyahu’s right hand. Katz’s current technocratic image belies a more fiery past as a student activist in the 1980s, when he was suspended for a year after his participation in protests (including trapping the university’s rector in a room). He has also been embroiled in corruption charges: In 2007, the police recommended that Katz be indicted for fraud and breach of trust over alleged political appointments made when he was agriculture minister. Ultimately, though, the decision was made not to prosecute him. He is viewed as a hard-liner to Netanyahu’s right, supporting annexation of parts of the West Bank. In the past, he has advocated cutting all ties with the Palestinian Authority.

Yisrael Katz on his way to a cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, November 17, 2019.
Ohad Ziegenberg

Yuli Edelstein

Ironically, one of Edelstein’s biggest advantages over his rivals to become the next Likud leader, and perhaps prime minister, is the fact that he doesn’t actively aspire to the position. By all reports, the job that Edelstein, a former Diaspora affairs minister and currently Knesset speaker, truly desires is the presidency. He would dearly like to be Reuven Rivlin’s successor in 2021. This, and his personal popularity — Edelstein was a refusenik hero of Soviet Jewry and sat in a Soviet prison for three years — means it has been suggested he could be an ideal consensus pick as a caretaker candidate in the immediate post-Netanyahu era.

With the understanding that Edelstein has little desire to hold the position long-term, he might be named prime minister until Rivlin vacates the president’s residence and another successor is elected. If this were to happen, he would be the first Israeli prime minister to have a priest as a father: Both of his parents converted to Christianity and his father became a cleric in the Russian Orthodox Church, with Edelstein raised by his Jewish maternal grandparents. After emigrating from the former Soviet Union in 1987, Edelstein moved directly to the West Bank settlement of Alon Shvut. He entered national politics as a member of Natan Sharansky’s Russian immigrant party Yisrael Ba’aliyah, which later merged with Likud.

Edelstein is on record as opposing a Palestinian state, which he believes Israel “would have to attack” since it would become “a source of terrorism” like the Gaza Strip. He recently blasted Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, calling the Vermont senator’s assertion that Israel was responsible for conditions in the Gaza Strip “absurd.” He also told him to “stop talking nonsense” when Sanders suggested diverting U.S. military aid to Israel toward humanitarian needs in Gaza.

Yuli Edelstein speaking at the Israel Democracy Institute, September 12, 2019.
Olivier Fitoussi