By: Jacob Lewis
Israel’s Attorney General, Avichai Mandelblit, recently announced that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will be charged with fraud and breach of trust in Cases 1000, 2000, and 4000 and bribery in Case 4000. While these criminal indictments will not force Netanyahu to step down from his office, they further complicate his quest to stay in power following his inability to form a government after both the April and September 2019 elections. For the first time in a long time, it is not clear how long Netanyahu will be able to retain the premiership and his position as leader of Likud. Right now Netanyahu has no intention of stepping down from either post, but it makes sense to start considering who will follow him as the head of his party. Aside from Blue and White’s Benny Gantz, whoever replaces Netanyahu will have the best chance at becoming Israel’s next Prime Minister. These are a few likely candidates for the job.
The most obvious person who comes to mind is Likud MK Gideon Sa’ar. Sa’ar has previously served as Minister of Education (2009-2013) and Minister of Internal Affairs (2013-2014). He was an MK from 2003-2014 but took a five year hiatus from politics until recently when he returned to the Knesset as a member of Likud in the April 2019 election. Sa’ar has long been considered a potential successor and political rival to Netanyahu within Likud, and on the day we learned that Netanyahu was to be indicted, Sa’ar announced his intention to challenge Netanyahu in a party leadership primary to be held within two weeks of November 24th. Sa’ar has also called on Netanyahu to resign his premiership due to his inability to form a government.
However, Sa’ar’s challenge to Netanyahu may not be going over well with Likudniks. A recent Likud member poll found that 53% supported Netanyahu while only 40% supported Sa’ar (although the text message methodology of the poll is questionable). Very few Likud officials have announced their public support for Sa’ar, and most of Netanyahu’s cabinet has rallied around the Prime Minister. Sa’ar’s place as a successor to Netanyahu may also be in doubt because a recent election poll projected that Likud would drop from the 32 seats it won under Netanyahu in September to 26 seats in an election under Sa’ar, with most of those seats going to the New Right and Shas. Sa’ar’s choice to challenge Netanyahu instead of waiting for him to step down may have dashed his chances at becoming Likud’s next leader in the eyes of Likud’s members.
Another potential contender for Netanyahu’s seat at the head of Likud is Nir Barkat. Barkat is a wealthy businessman and former mayor of Jerusalem who was elected to the Knesset as a member of Likud in the April 2019 election. He has stated his public support for Netanyahu to continue as Prime Minister but also recently proposed a plan to establish a deputy-leader position in Likud just in case the leader must step down. Barkat also opposes Sa’ar’s challenge to Netanyahu, stating that Sa’ar’s call for a primary “isn’t innocent” and is “a move to oust the elected chairman and prime minister.” While Barkat clearly supports Netanyahu, his proposal to create a deputy-leadership position seems to indicate that he has ambitions to succeed the Prime Minister, although these ambitions might be for the distant future.
A third potential candidate to succeed Netanyahu is one of his former advisers and current Minister of Public Security, Strategic Affairs, and Information, Gilad Erdan. While it is unlikely that Erdan would publicly seek the premiership while Netanyahu holds it, as he has been loyal to Netanyahu throughout his career, there is some question as to what his intentions are considering he has been silent on the announcement of Netanyahu’s indictment charges.
Yisrael Katz, who has represented Likud in the Knesset since 1998 and is the current Minister of Foreign Affairs and Intelligence, has also been floated as a possible replacement. He was given his Foreign Affairs position by Netanyahu following the Prime Minister’s decision to give up the position himself in early 2019. Although Katz was initially silent on Netanyahu’s indictment charges, he recently clarified his support for the Prime Minister continuing on in his position.
Yuli Edelstein, the current Speaker of the Knesset, has also been mentioned as a potential replacement for Netanyahu and has been quiet about Netanyahu’s indictments. Edelstein seems to be a key contender for becoming the next President of Israel, although a recent report states that he has been preparing to join the next Likud leadership primary (which he has denied). If he sees an opening for the premiership, he might join the primary, but if the path to the presidency is more clear it is likely he will stick to it.
Although she is not currently a member of Likud, Ayelet Shaked should be mentioned as a possible successor. She and Defense Minister Naftali Bennett lead the New Right. Shaked is a former Minister of Justice and is popular among religious Zionists. Shaked is clearly interested in becoming Prime Minister in the future and has left the idea of the New Right merging with Likud open despite recently denying a merger was occurring. If Netanyahu is forced to step down or is in clear danger of losing his position, Shaked may decide to attempt a takeover of Likud and become its leader.
So, who is the most likely to succeed Netanyahu? For the most part, we can only speculate. The hypothetical election poll discussed earlier also polled the Likud leadership primary without Netanyahu. The results showed that 39.4% favored Sa’ar, 23.6% favored Barkat, 6.2% favored Katz, 4.4% favored Edelstein, and 2.3% favored current Minister of Culture and Sport Miri Regev. While Sa’ar still leads the pack according to this poll, his lead is not overwhelming, and a head-to-head matchup puts Barkat up against Sa’ar 48.5% to 41.9%. Sa’ar clearly is not the prohibitive favorite to win Likud’s top job as he would lose to the popular former mayor of Jerusalem according to this poll. However, it is important to remember that this is just one poll, and the texting methodology should make anyone take it with a few grains of salt. All of those who might follow Netanyahu have views that are similar or further to the right of him. What we know for sure is that regardless of whether Netanyahu leaves politics within the next couple of weeks or the next few months, his successor is unclear even if at the moment it would seem that Sa’ar and Barkat are in the best position. As some polling with Sa’ar at the head of Likud might suggest, the party could also bleed support if Netanyahu no longer leads it. The party’s future leadership and degree of power in the Knesset is a question mark at best. However, regardless of who takes Netanyahu’s mantle, Likud seems likely to continue to be the largest right-leaning party in the Knesset. His successor will be the most probable right-wing candidate to become Prime Minister.
Jacob Lewis is a sophomore majoring in Political Science and minoring in Israel Studies.