What's Behind Edelstein's Unlikely Challenge to Netanyahu's Leadership?

עקיבא נוביק
Akiva Novick
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Yuli Edelstein at a ceremony honoring Health Ministry workers in Jerusalem, June.
עקיבא נוביק
Akiva Novick

Is it possible that what we see is really how things are? That what appears to be political suicide on the part of Yuli Edelstein is not a clever chess move but rather a slow fall on the sword?

We have a tendency to ascribe political moves that seem to lack any sophistication to cunning; we tell ourselves that perhaps we don’t understand their wisdom. The person making them is a seasoned actor, who surely would never do something so foolish. The presumption of reason produces piles of guesswork (this essay among them), but maybe what looks like “Veep” is indeed not “House of Cards.”

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Edelstein made his big political mistake not last week but rather in March 2020 when, as speaker of the Knesset, he went into a losing battle against the High Court of Justice in an attempt to block the appointment of a replacement. He caused himself the maximal damage, and in return received from then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu the minimal consideration in the form of the Health Ministry portfolio.

That accident put a dent into a plan that Edelstein had cultivated for years: running for president. Toward that end, for 25 years he took great care to deliver the most boring speeches possible, to respect everyone, to call for unity at every opportunity, to lose in debates with Netanyahu during Independence Day torch lighting ceremonies, to praise statesmanship as a value and to serve in inconsequential positions such as minister of public diplomacy.

Had Edelstein managed to preserve this image and to compete with Isaac Herzog for the presidency, he might have been able to beat him, or at least to win a consolation prize or two. Running for prime minister is Plan B for Edelstein, the one that is only pulled out when the big dream vanishes.

According to a law of nature in Likud, anyone in a suit and with a pulse who challenges Netanyahu in the party primary gets about 25 percent of the votes. Moshe Feiglin received 23.4 percent and 24 percent, Danny Danon won 25 percent and Gideon Sa’ar beat the odds to reach 27.5 percent. Edelstein managed to shatter the rule: A weekend poll gave him just 6 percent.

Some Likud figures look to Edelstein’s father-in-law, the Russian-born oligarch Leonid Nevzlin, to explain his latest move. According to this theory (whose disseminators are not members of Yair Netanyahu’s filth squad), Edelstein announced his challenge to Netanyahu on Monday in order to boost the chances of his wife in her run for head of the Jewish Agency, and replaced his dream of being president with being Likud chairman for the same reason. “Prisoner of Zion in his own home,” one Likud activist called him. A cabinet minister once told me: “If I were an oligarch, and on the outs with the Kremlin, I’d try to acquire three things in Israel: a museum, the government and a newspaper or magazine.” Nevzlin established a magazine (Liberal), his daughter is the chair of a museum (ANU, Museum of the Jewish People), and perhaps now he’s interested in the government.

When Netanyahu was still toying with the idea of running for president, he was told he had what it takes to be premier but was unfit for the presidency. Edelstein seems to have the opposite problem: He’s better suited to the President’s Residence – on account of his moving Zionist/refusenik story and decades of government activity – than to be prime minister. He doesn’t have the killer instinct, he’s not a doer, his eyes don’t shine with passion for the position – all the necessary attributes to run for prime minister.

It’s possible that the seeds of the difficulties he is facing now were planted when he still dreamed of being president. His tendency to appear as neutral as possible is backfiring on him now. He did allow the Knesset to remove Netanyahu’s immunity from prosecution, but he got little credit from the public for it. The saga over the torch ceremonies, which he lost to Miri Regev in the end, only hurt Edelstein. He has no scalps on his belt – and maybe he never even had a belt.

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