Day After Netanyahu's Indictment, Likud Is in Panic and Uncertain What Should Be the Next Move

Netanyahu is still very popular among his party officials and is likely to win any primary election Likud will hold. But some potential successors are waiting to pounce

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, flanked by Culture Minister Miri Regev and Justice Minister Amir Ohana, at a Likud rally in Tel Aviv, November 17, 2019.
Moti Milrod

The morning after Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit charged Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with bribery, fraud and breach of trust, officials in his Likud party are asking themselves what to do next.

Between the most devout Netanyahu supporters and those who have been waiting for his regime to come toppling down, the overwhelming consensus in the party is that only a miracle could keep Netanyahu in his position for the long run. 

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On Thursday evening, several Likud Knesset members published statements declaring their support for Netanyahu. But except for a small core of close associates such as Culture Minister Miri Regev and Justice Minister Amir Ohana, Netanyahu's line that his police interrogators themselves were corrupt has not been widely accepted. Other lawmakers are sufficing with hopes that the prime minister will be acquitted in court.

Netanyahu has no plans to vacate his seat willingly. In the coming 19 days – during which MKs are supposed to find a candidate they can all agree on to form a coalition, and following which Israel will head for a third election – the prime minister will try to preserve the support of his party members. The Likud itself is now torn over the issue of its primary election. 

On Tuesday night, after he held a failed meeting with Kahol Lavan Chairman Benny Gantz, Netanyahu went into a panic. He was scared that some of his lawmakers might actually support a Gantz-led government. He was quick to announce that should a third election be held, he will bring forth a proposal to cancel Likud's primary election, through which the political party selects the slate that runs for the Knesset.

Netanyahu would have done that in order to prevent lawmakers from the  bottom of that list to defect and join a Gantz government. His rationale is that they would prefer being under Gantz's leadership for one tenure instead of going through an exhausting primary election, which could likely end with them getting kicked out of the Knesset. 

Netanyahu didn't explicitly call off the option for a primary election for the party's leadership, so the very next day Likud faction leader MK Miki Zohar prevented a discussion on the matter at a party meeting. MK Gideon Sa'ar has already announced that when the time came he would run for party leadership. Likud Central Committee Chairman Haim Katz, who is friendly with Sa'ar, is also in favor of holding a primary election for the party leadership. 

The Likud primary election will be held if and only when the Knesset is dissolved and a new date is set for a third election. Netanyahu is very popular among the party members, and he is still the obvious leading candidate in any primary election. Nonetheless, Sa'ar can still entice Likud MKs with a vision according to which he would return the rule of the country to Likud. If they choose Netanyahu, they understand that the road ahead will inevitably be bumpy. Netanyahu is afraid of such a scenario, so he isn't quick to set a date for the primary election, even though he has consistently threatened to hold it as soon as possible. 

Likud officials understand that in light of the grave indictment that was filed against the prime minister, the chances for a unity government with Kahol Lavan are slim. Save for an imaginary scenario in which Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu joins a coalition under Netanyahu, the Likud is clearly headed for another election. For the party, this election will be a referendum on Netanyahu's indictment: Will the number of Netanyahu-supporting Knesset members who are willing to grant him immunity from prosecution rise from 55 to 61? 

If the answer is negative, no one in Likud can begin to imagine how the party will emerge from the corner it has been backed into.