Top Israeli Politicians Plotting to Put an End to Netanyahu's Lengthy Rule

The consensus is that the prime minister can't be ousted so long as the current political order remains intact; an alternative right-center alliance is in the works, but will candidates' egos stand in the way?

Netanyahu in the Knesset, January 2016.
Olivier Fitoussi

This month marks the first anniversary of the election of the 20th Knesset. The next election is beyond the so-called hills of darkness, in three-and-a-half years, if held on schedule. But the political arena is seething and sizzling, with just one topic on the agenda: how to put an end to the lengthy rule of Benjamin Netanyahu, how to make his fourth term his last.

Every senior politician in the coalition and opposition alike is busy trying to crack the nut of Netanyahu’s decade in power. Conversations I have had with several unnameable sources turned up one element of agreement: the need to create an alignment.

The consensus is that Netanyahu cannot be ousted so long as the current political order remains intact, since it will only ensure his victory next time, too. The familiar map of the right wing and the ultra-Orthodox – Likud, Habayit Hayehudi, Shas, United Torah Judaism – will always block any realistic scenario of establishment of a center-left government.

The sworn anti-Bibi bunch that might be part of a future move to oust him are the following: Moshe Kahlon, leader of Kulanu; Avigdor Lieberman, head of Yisrael Beiteinu; Yair Lapid, leader of Yesh Atid; Gideon Sa’ar, a former Likudnik whose name comes up in this context; and Gabi Ashkenazi, the former Israel Defense Forces chief of staff, who is at present inclined to run in the next election. For his part, the latter will definitely not run as No. 2 in Lapid’s party, or in Zionist Union, even if its leadership is presented to him on a silver platter. Indeed, Ashkenazi is convinced that Labor, the battered dominant partner in Zionist Union, has concluded its historic role as the country’s ruling party.

The prevailing assumption is that a new political grouping that includes several of the above-named gentlemen – one will not be enough – could forge the necessary conditions to topple Likud. New in-depth surveys show that, for now, (A) Nearly two-thirds of the voters want to see Netanyahu pack his bags for good; and (B) a large percentage of voters see no substitute for him. Conclusion: As long as (B) holds true, the premier will hold on.

Moshe Kahlon and Avigdor Lieberman having a chat at the Knesset.
Olivier Fitoussi

The members of the anti-Bibi bunch have concluded that in the current gloomy situation, in which there is no rival to Netanyahu, the only way forward is to gnaw away at his party: To channel votes from Likud to a new right-lite party with a slate that will appeal to moderate Likudniks who style themselves mainstream – people who want the right to stay in power but are fed up with the leadership of the “Netanyahu family,” as Lieberman put it this week.

As long as security remains the dominant theme in Israel, it’s logical for any new alignment to come from the right-center. The left is not a solution, it’s part of the problem. Kahlon and Sa’ar is a natural combination. Ashkenazi will define his identity if and when he joins as “center.” In our universe of images, he will always look more hawkish and more security-oriented than Zionist Union’s Isaac Herzog and Lapid, even if all three espouse the identical policy. Lieberman calls himself “pragmatic right,” though his public image is extreme right. If there were a chart, he would be a bit to the left of Naftali Bennett. By the way, there is some sort of unclear connection between the two that they are hiding. The Prime Minister’s Bureau is aware of and disturbed by it.

Lapid, though he would like to head the imaginary party and become its candidate for prime minister, is of no relevance. Despite his clumsy efforts to sell himself as “center with a slight rightward inclination,” the public continues to perceive him as part of the left-wing camp. His nationalistic affectations and his transparent flirtation with religiosity and religious parties haven’t persuaded a single Likud voter to defect to Yesh Atid.

And then there’s also the minor matter of ego. Ashkenazi doesn’t dream of being anyone’s No. 2. Nor does Lapid, who is now getting the equivalent of 18 seats in the polls. Same for Sa’ar. And Lieberman might “compromise by accepting the defense portfolio,” according to one of the conspirators.

Kahlon is the pivot. He’s only showing five or six seats’ worth of support in the polls, half his party’s current representation. But hooking up with Sa’ar gets him five more seats, all from Likud. Kahlon is the only one in the above-mentioned group who isn’t eyeing the premiership. He’ll be happy to return to the Finance Ministry next time.

“So far,” one of those involved said, “the major stumbling block to replacing Bibi is ego. As soon as we solve that, everything will be easier.” Interestingly, a similar comment was made recently by a senior Likud figure: “If only we could get behind an agreed-upon candidate, we could dump him,” he said with a sigh.

Apocalypse now

In June 2009, at Bar-Ilan University, the two-state idea became the preserve of the right wing and the de facto policy of the Netanyahu government (albeit not by official decision, but in a speech). Late last month, in the same venue, the burial of the idea of a Palestinian state was announced. In a well-prepared, comprehensive speech, Jerusalem Affairs Minister Zeev Elkin put paid to the prospect of the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and predicted the inevitable collapse of the Palestinian Authority.

One shouldn’t overstate the influence wielded by Elkin on government policy. But still, besides being a member of the security cabinet, he is a senior figure in the ruling party, close to Netanyahu, and an articulate spokesman of the mood on the right. In a climate that lacks even the semblance of an effort to renew talks with the Palestinians, Elkin’s words could be an incentive for the international community to turn urgently to the United Nations Security Council to discuss ways to forestall the PA’s implosion.

Elkin noted that one of the factors that prompted him to make his learned assessment public is his own despair. He understands that he will not be able to generate “a serious dialogue about the PA’s collapse behind closed doors,” meaning in the security cabinet. His remarks would seem to jibe with what Education Minister Naftali Bennett, also a member of that cabinet, said recently: that the “conceptual stagnation” of the defense establishment is the major strategic threat to Israel, not the rockets and missiles of Hamas and Hezbollah.

I put it to Elkin that the conclusion to be drawn from his remarks is that the security cabinet is not doing its job. “That’s not true,” he said. “There are serious discussions, but no one listens to me. That’s why I’ve despaired.”

So, I said, when the PA collapses, after the era of President Mahmoud Abbas, you will be able to say that you were the first to spot it? “Yes,” he replied, “and this time it will be true, too.”