Analysis

Tuesday’s Likud Primary Is the First Act in Palace Coup Against Netanyahu

There are eight prominent candidates who see themselves as potential future leaders, but the next party head may yet come from a prodigal son or daughter returning to the fold

Clockwise: Gideon Sa'ar, Gilad Erdan, Yisrael Katz, Yuli Edelstein, Yoav Gallant, Nir Barkat, Tzachi Hanegbi, and Miri Regev.
Moti Milrod, Olivier Fitoussi, Hadas Parush, Nir Keidar, Eyal Toueg, Meged Gozani

In the first episode of his new Facebook channel Likud TV on Sunday night, Benjamin Netanyahu made a surprising accusation he had hitherto only made in private. He claimed to have heard from other party members that former minister and prominent campaigner in Tuesday’s Likud primary, Gideon Sa’ar, was telling people that after the election President Reuven Rivlin would ask him, not Netanyahu, to form the next government. Not only has such a scenario already been vehemently denied by both Rivlin and Sa’ar, it also flies in the face of all political precedent and would probably be unconstitutional.

Netanyahu chose to publicly recycle his conspiracy theory against Sa’ar and Rivlin on the eve of the party primary for a reason. He believes the return of Sa’ar to frontline politics is the first stage in an internal coup against him. He is hoping to taint Sa’ar as a plotter against his leadership and damage his prospects of doing well Tuesday and emerging as a leading candidate to succeed him.

The reactions to the allegation were interesting. Sa’ar expressed regret over “the false accusation” and said that on “the eve of critical elections for Likud and the state, I will behave like the responsible adult and won’t be dragged into an internal battle.” In subsequent radio interviews on Monday morning, though, he didn’t attack the prime minister personally and even pledged his support. Sa’ar didn’t want to annoy Netanyahu supporters 24 hours before they hold his political fate in their hands.

At the same time, however, other senior Likud figures were conspicuous in not rallying to Netanyahu’s side. None of the ministers or Knesset members who can usually be relied upon to back up the prime minister, no matter what, were prepared to do so this time. In fact, the few who were willing to speak publicly expressed their disbelief that Sa’ar was behind a plot, albeit without criticizing Netanyahu directly.

It was an intriguing moment in which, for the first time in years, no one of any seniority in Likud was prepared to endorse Netanyahu’s latest bout of paranoia.

It’s much too early to say Netanyahu is losing control of his party. But for the first time, on the eve of the party primary in which his prospective successors will be testing their popularity against each other, it felt as if the Likudniks were hedging their bets. Bibi is still king, but Likud is in the first act of its palace coup.

Over the last two years comparisons between Netanyahu and Donald Trump have abounded. And many – though not all of them – are credible. One key difference between the two men is that while the Republican Party still has a number of prominent figures openly critical of Trump and there will likely be challenges to his 2020 candidacy, Netanyahu literally has no open opposition in Likud today. And that’s totally in character with the party’s ethos.

In the 94 years of its existence, Likud (originally founded by Ze’ev Jabotinsky in 1925 as the Revisionist Zionists, which evolved into Herut in 1948 and then Likud in 1973) has had only five leaders: Jabotinsky, Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Shamir, Ariel Sharon and Netanyahu. While they were sometimes challenged, none of the five ever lost the leadership. Jabotinsky died in the saddle, while his successors all chose the timing of their resignations.

Netanyahu has now been leader of Likud for a total of 20 years (he was originally elected in 1993 but Sharon replaced him between 1999 and 2005), the second-longest serving leader after Begin, and no one is officially challenging him. The last leadership election, which was supposed to take place in February 2016, was canceled because no one but Netanyahu presented their candidacy.

Whatever some party members think of him in their hearts, not one of them that hopes to get on the party’s Knesset slate, perhaps one day competing for the leadership, is prepared to come out against him publicly. To do so would be political suicide.

Netanyahu is a proven victor, the winner of four elections – more than any other Likud leader. The party grass roots ascribe to him almost mythical qualities, and anyone who is seen to be undermining him will suffer a toxic online onslaught and downfall in a primary.

Jabotinsky was idolized for his brilliance and ideology. Begin was admired and loved for his sacrifice during years of opposition (and in the underground before that), and for his humility and humanity. Netanyahu is feared.

And yet the undertone of Tuesday’s primary is all about the day after Bibi. The election is for the number two and downward positions on the party’s candidate slate, with the leader’s number one spot not up for vote. But the next time the Likud membership is asked to vote is likely to be for the party’s next leader, in the not-too-distant future when Netanyahu is forced out of office by nearly inevitable criminal charges. And since all four of Likud’s leaders in the state era were at some point also elected prime minister, Likud members could in effect be voting for Israel’s likely future leader.

Netanyahu, of course, is not planning to designate a successor, and the candidates he is discreetly supporting – and behind the scenes urging his die-hard supporters to vote for – have not been selected by him on the basis of their future leadership potential. He still plans to lead Likud for decades to come, and his favorites are the most slavishly loyal and least-threatening candidates. But even the greatest Bibi sycophants are aware that he may not be around for much longer and are treating this primary as the preliminary round for choosing his successor.

There are eight prominent candidates on the slate who see themselves as potential future leaders.

Sa’ar, who considers himself a front-runner and was confident enough of his chances to take a break from politics in 2015 and is now returning to the Knesset, will undoubtedly be damaged by Netanyahu’s allegations of disloyalty. But he remains very popular in the party and has actually been liberated by the campaign against him. He no longer has to prove himself by coming top, as he twice was in the past. This time, any place in the top five will be enough to confirm his status as a heavy favorite for the succession.

Gilad Erdan, who came top last time while Sa’ar stayed home (and second in the two primaries before that), is under much more pressure. As public security minister, he has been criticized for not doing enough to try to prevent the police investigations against Netanyahu (not that he had any power to do so, but logic doesn’t necessarily apply in Likud primaries). He will probably be pleased with a top-five finish as well, which will keep him on the list of potential leadership candidates.

Yisrael Katz, the oldest of Likud’s big beasts and certainly the wiliest, is under a lot of pressure to prove he can come top. He has one of the strongest grass-roots organizations in the party, but his best showing so far was third last time around. At 63, this could be his last chance to present himself as a viable candidate. However, he will have to overcome pockets of Netanyahu loyalists who suspect him of plotting against the prime minister.

Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein came second in the 2015 primary, largely thanks to not being seen as a threat to anyone else. He is expected to do well again this year and is known to harbor leadership aspirations behind his mild-mannered exterior. This time, though, he is perceived as a contender. In addition, as speaker he has clashed with a number of Likud MKs and ministers as he tried to rein them in.

Out to get him is another contender for top spot – the culture minister with whom Edelstein clashed over the staging of last year’s Independence Day event marking Israel’s 70th anniversary. Miri Regev is expected to do very well, even to possibly become the first woman to take the top spot in a Likud primary. Her provocative style as minister, threatening to shut down any “non-Zionist” events and productions (though she rarely succeeded in doing so), and her constant willingness to serve as Netanyahu’s attack dog on every screen, won her admirers among the party’s grass roots and the prime minister’s support. However, of all the main candidates, a strong showing by Regev is the least likely to indicate future success in a leadership race: With Netanyahu gone, she will be far less powerful.

One veteran Likudnik who could do well is Regional Cooperation Minister Tzachi Hanegbi, who only made 10th spot last time around. Hanegbi enjoys both widespread popularity among the party’s grass roots and Netanyahu’s trust. He is also the only “prince,” a son of Likud’s founding generation, in the running – not that this counts for much anymore. Hanegbi, who defected to Kadima in 2005, is seen as someone who lost his chance to be considered a future leader. However, a top five primary result could put him back on the list.

There are also two newcomers who are eager to establish their credentials as possible future candidates. Nir Barkat spent the entire five years of his just-ended second term as Jerusalem mayor shamelessly using city hall as a venue to host party members. A high-tech millionaire, he also has the funds to run a well-oiled campaign. But despite his high hopes, there is a feeling among the party’s grass roots that “he lacks the touch” to be a senior Likud leader. He will need to get a top 10 spot Tuesday to be considered going forward.

The other newcomer, Immigrant Absorption Minister Yoav Gallant – who just defected from Kulanu, although for the past two years he did little to hide the impression he was planning to do so, attending Likud events while not even a member – has Netanyahu’s backing. Currently, he is the only former army general in the running, and Likud needs generals to stand up to Benny Gantz, who is proving the main rival to Netanyahu ahead of the April 9 election. Gallant has not proven himself as a politician or in his previous posting as housing and construction minister. But he is arrogant enough to think he can be prime minister. And a strong showing Tuesday will only reinforce his self-importance.

All that said, there are a number of reasons why success in the primary may not necessarily portend a strong chance in a future Likud leadership race. The moment Netanyahu is forced to leave office, at least part of his influence over the party membership will evaporate – which could greatly change their future voting preferences.

But on the other hand, the manner of Netanyahu’s departure – especially if he is seen to have been forced out by his party colleagues – could cause his remaining die-hard supporters to punish any plotters and make sure that whoever wielded the dagger will not sit on the throne.

A post-Netanyahu Likud could also herald the return to the fold of ex-Likudniks who fell out with Bibi. Moshe Kahlon, Avigdor Lieberman, Moshe Ya’alon, Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked are all heads of their own right-wing parties now, but given half a chance to get back and compete for the succession, would do so in a heartbeat. But assuming a leadership contest would be held quickly after Netanyahu’s departure, Likud party rules may not allow them back in time.

In the absence of a clear successor, on the day after Netanyahu Likud will almost certainly descend into a prolonged bout of internecine bloodletting. Tuesday’s primary results will give us the first indications of who may come out on top.