In 1990, the British Conservative party realized that Margaret Thatcher would not be able to keep it in power although she had led it to three impressive electoral victories since 1979. Challenged to a leadership contest, she failed to win on the first ballot and withdrew from succeeding ballots. Her successor, John Major, vindicated the electoral calculus by winning the 1992 elections, but then presided over a cabinet weakened by sleaze and hopelessly divided over Europe. Still, dumping Thatcher for Major bought the Tories five more years in power.
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The Likud party is facing a similar dilemma with its chairman, Benjamin Netanyahu, although the major similarity between Netanyahu and Thatcher is that both succeeded in making powerful enemies within their parties. Netanyahu has not made the same impact that Thatcher had on her era, and after leaving office he will not have people pining for him as Torydom still pines for the Iron Lady.
True, it is risky to predicate decisions on fickle polls that can catapult you from the stratosphere to the political dumps, but one thing is clear: the support for Netanyahu is very shallow. There is also the factor invoked by U.S. President Barack Obama – perhaps as a backhanded slap at the Clintonites – that voters in the 2016 elections are looking for a new car smell. Netanyahu may still be serviceable, but he clearly does not command the enthusiasm he once did even among his core voting base
The Likud party must also consider post-election coalition formation. Yisrael Beiteinu Chairman Avigdor Lieberman and former Likud minister Moshe Kahlon, who are expected to garner over 20 seats between them, are currently on the outs with Netanyahu, although in better times they were one happy family. A new face at the top of the Likud ticket would not be burdened by the political baggage that Netanyahu has accumulated. The looming anybody-but-Bibi campaign will be rendered obsolete once Likud offers a plausible replacement.
I, therefore, believe that former Likud minister Gideon Sa'ar, if he ever intended to become prime minister, should wind up his admittedly brief break from politics and challenge Netanyahu for the top stop in Likud.
The already declared challengers to Netanyahu for the Likud leadership, Moshe Feiglin and Danny Danon, are both fine people. Feiglin has demonstrated a talent for thinking out of the box, while Danon had the courage to challenge Netanyahu's overly cautious strategy in the last Gaza war. But it will be hard to persuade the public that they are ready for the top spot given their lack of ministerial experience. Barack Obama and French President Francois Hollande demonstrate the problem of promoting politicians without a proven track record.
Sa'ar's main problem, should he decide to run, is not Netanyahu, but his former colleagues on the ministerial bench for whom a Sa'ar victory would presage a political mid-life crisis, because it would means the political succession in Likud has moved on to the next generation.
Politics is generational. As long as the 65-year-old Netanyahu heads Likud, Defense Minister
Moshe Ya'alon, Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz, Strategic and Intelligence Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz and others can still hope to reach the top spot once Netanyahu retires. However, if we jump a generation and Sa'ar reaches the top spot, the current senior ministers would become old timers, and the class of Zeev Elkin, Yariv Levin, Tzipi Hotovely and company would expect promotion. We witnessed the dynamic this week when Likud stalwart Limor Livnat announced her retirement from politics. The older generation, therefore, has a vested interest in keeping Netanyahu in and Sa'ar out.
To adopt a phrase coined by Labor chair Isaac Herzog, Saar's rivals should stow their egos and support someone who has the best chance of keeping Likud in power. One of the most effective arguments made by Likud politicians to Israeli nationalists disappointed with the party's performance is to heed the lessons of 1992 and 1999. By bringing down Yitzhak Shamir from premiership in 1992, Israeli nationalists paved the way for the Oslo government and the disasters that followed, and Netanyahu's defeat in 1999 brought in Ehud Barak, who was prepared to surrender everything to Arafat at Camp David and Hafez Assad at Shepherdstown, but was thwarted by their excessive cupidity. By the same token, Likud ministers should rally around the best positioned candidate to stave off a similar disaster.
The principle of retaining an incumbent prime minister at all costs is not sacred but is definitely foolhardy.
While a Sa'ar candidacy may also deprive the surging Habayit Hayehudi of a few seats, this would be small potatoes compared to allowing the left to come to power.
The aforesaid is no disparagement of Netanyahu's talents and his many years of service. There is also no reason why a senior cabinet post – for example the Finance or Foreign Ministry – could not be ably filled by Netanyahu. In Europe and in Israel, former prime ministers have gone on to fill cabinet ministries. One can cite the examples of Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak who both served as defense ministers after they were prime ministers, or even Shimon Peres, who made do with the post of regional development minister. If Netanyahu, after leaving the prime minister's office, wants to continue serving his country, he should be given ample opportunity to do so.
Amiel Ungar is a political scientist.