The post-election stalemate in Israel, the Netanyahu era and Benjamin Netanyahu’s heirs apparent
By Gabriel Haritos*
While everything indicates that the “Netanyahu era” does not seem to be ending, this does not mean that the “era of heirs” has not yet begun to emerge within the ruling Likud. And as is the case with every ruling party, and with a leader who happens to be the longest-serving prime minister in the country, there are many would-be successors.
That the post-election stalemate in Israel continues is no news. It is not news that the mandate to form a government is in the hands of Benjamin Netanyahu and that by the time these lines are being written, no progress has been made in forming a coalition government. The “Blue and White”, the largest opposition party under Benny Gantz, is in no hurry to find the necessary balance to include Benjamin Netanyahu in the new government. A simple reading of the political reality in Israel leads to the simplified conclusion that the key obstacle to the formation of a national unity government is not so much the ideological differences between Likud and “Blue and White” as is the very personality of Benjamin Netanyahu. This oversimplifies post-election developments and makes the necessary convergences even more difficult.
The Likud Executive Committee met extraordinarily last week, making a decision that looked more like a press release aimed primarily at political newspaper analysts who were in a hurry to “expel” Netanyahu from the political scene. The Executive Committee’s decision most solemnly expressed its confidence in Netanyahu, stating that Likud would only participate in a co-operative government provided that Netanyahu would take over as prime minister – or throughout the term of office of the government to be formed, or the period to be determined if the rotating prime ministerial measure applies. In addition to its faith in Netanyahu, indirectly but clearly, Likud’s willingness to form a government for cooperation with the “Blue and White” is reiterated, even if it means that in two of his four years in office, Benny Gantz will serve as PM . However, Gantz – though willing to accept such a compromise – is called upon to overtake the strong objections of his other two, party, partners Yair Lapid and Moshe Ya’alon, who allegedly do not want to see him in the premiership. And this is how it is simply described in terms of the political stalemate that Israel has been experiencing for the past ten consecutive months.
While all indicate that the “Netanyahu era” does not seem to be ending, this does not mean that the “era of heirs” has not yet begun to appear within the ruling Likud. And as is the case with any ruling party, and with a leader who happens to be the country’s longest-serving prime minister – there are many hopeful successors. However, up until now, they have been careful not to catch the public eye.
No contender wanted to be seen by the party’s electoral base as finding the opportunity to “fell the oak”, while the leader of the faction faces charges directly related to common penal crimes. And so, amidst a climate of subdued competition and civility, Likud managed to stack up in two consecutive elections, last April and September.
However, in the last 10 days it seems that the prospective successors are starting to lose patience, and three of them have already started talking openly about what will happen next in the post-Netanyahu era. The first two are Likud MPs: Gideon Sa’ar and Nir Barkat. The third is Josie Cohen, who has led Mosad from 2016 until today.
It all started early last week, when Netanyahu let leak to the local media of an alleged intent to call in-party elections for the emergence of new party leadership. Initially, the news surprised many, inside and outside the party. It has come under fire from various opposition circles for Netanyahu’s alleged “disorderly withdrawal” from politics. All these considerations proved to be unfounded – since, very easily, the intra-party election scenario was not only disproved by Netanyahu himself, but turned into a trap in which the prospective heir Gideon Sa’ar, who hurried to claim the leadership of Likud, via Twitter, fell into a trap.
Gideon Sa’ar’s ambition surprise no one. Having studied law and political science at the University of Tel Aviv and with a long career in internal party institutions, he served as a Likud MP from 2003 to 2014, Minister of Education from 2009 to 2013 and Minister of Interior from 2013 to September. 2014, when he resigned, with the reasons behind his decision never quite clearly being defined. The fact is, however, that on an intra-party level, Sa’ar has been gathering a large number of electors for years, something that has always upset Netanyahu’s circle.
His critics complain that beyond a hard core of personal supporters, Sa’ar is unable to give a distinct ideological mark to his political career. The truth is, however, that Gideon Sa’ar expresses the average right-wing Israeli voter, who respects but keeps a reasonable distance from religious traditions. With regard to the continued unresolved Palestinian issue, Saar looks on suspiciously towards any kind of innovation (including the Oslo Accords) that could in the future put the country at risk. The truth is also that Sa’ar is not considered highly communicational. Curiously, this is in his favor, as in every intra-party election, his constituents remain loyal to their choice – due in part to his long standing in the party’s collective organs. His particular ideological stigma, however, remains unclear – at least to those outside his immediate environment. As for the memorable quip ‘I’m ready’ on social media, he took it back very quickly, stating that his desire to claim the party’s reins has been known for many years and that this will happen whenever and wherever he decides to in-party elections. He even added that, until that happens, “he will remain committed to the present party leadership”, causing mirth among Netanyahu circles. And rightly so.
Another emergence for the leadership created a sensation last Friday. The mayor of Jerusalem, for a decade and current Likud MP Nir Barkat, in a lengthy interview with a high-profile newspaper, said that he was going to be the next prime minister, but stressed that “this will only happen” in the post-Netanyahu era. ” There are two major “precedents” that lead to the Israeli prime ministerial post:The first is a successful career in the military establishment and the second a successful term in the multi-faceted problematic city of Jerusalem. Barkat comes from the second.
The interesting point about Barkat’s nomination is the simple phrase he repeated, in many variations, in his multi-page interview: “I have solved my financial issue, I need no one and no one can bribe me, and therefore – I will be free of commitments and I’ll be able to do good things for my country.” This is at core simplistic reasoning. But given the multitude of financial scandals that provoke public opinion, one would argue that Barkat is a candidate with claims.
Indeed, during his mayoral term in Jerusalem, a city riddled with differences between religious and non-religious Jews, he managed to find a Solomonic solution. Economically he attracted investors and funds and upgraded the daily life of the average Jewish citizen with major infrastructure projects. On the other hand, he did not particularly try to balance the socio-economic differences between the Jewish and Arab neighborhoods – but, as he himself admits, “this situation is the result of all my predecessors, from 1967 onwards,” which is not unfair.
Indeed, nothing was heard about his financial solvency (as he is considered the richest man in Israel, thanks to his high-tech technology businesses) or the sound management of municipal resources (which in Israeli local government is considered a major financial wound). However, what they are accusing him of on an intra-party level is that he is “not popular enough”, and therefore unable to “speak the language of the simple people”, which is Likud’s main electoral base.
These days his autobiography, “Made Only for a Long Course,” is being released, in which he in many ways emphasizes – and perhaps exaggerates – the profile of the “honest self-made millionaire.” Acerbic tongues, however, call into question whether he was not simply boosted by his affluent family environment.
As Netanyahu’s own presence in the official presentation of the book has shown, Nir Barkat seems to have won the ‘ring’ of succession – whenever this is the case – provided that Barkat adheres to the pretexts. And he seems to have all the good intentions to adhere to them. But the backing of the popular voter base is the main issue, as well as whether intra-party processes will prove to be able to tolerate a rich and uncorrupted – but inaccessible – party leader. As for support from Netanyahu’s circle: It can not be excluded that Barckat is not considered “highly regarded” enough, and is therefore considered rather harmless. It cannot be ruled out that this assessment is ultimately wrong.
Of particular interest is the largely unexpected appearance of the current leader of Mossad, Yossi Cohen, as Benjamin Netanyahu’s successor. Yes, what is called the “intelligence community” is awe-inspiring to the average Israeli voter. However, it is unusual for an official at such an important institution to state that he wants to find a place in some party machine. Indeed, many believe that the self-proposed candidacy of the head of the country’s intelligence services is capable of undermining the proper performance of his duties.
On the other hand, however, Cohen is undoubtedly a personality “untouched” by the intense scandal of Israeli political reality. And yes, under the current legislation, the Leader of Mossad may take a political post after at least six months have elapsed since the end of his term of office (so as to avoid a “conflict of interest” which, under Israeli law, could possibly bring about criminal litigation). However, who will be able to ascertain the exact scope of any personal interest of a politician who, given his professional background, is certain to “know a lot” about everyone, including his potential political rivals? Yossi Cohen’s nomination, when and whenever it comes about, will seriously be put on the table and will raise a number of crucial constitutional as well as ethical questions. However, it can not be ruled out that this particular concern, in the end, could even work in his favor.
Although the opposite has always been the case, it is estimated that it is really too early to talk about Benjamin Netanyahu’s successor in Likud’s leadership. Perhaps in the middle of next year, this issue will come back to life if an indictment is issued. Until then, however, intra-party processes will continue, and it is not excluded that other candidates for leadership will emerge – while highlighting even more interesting aspects of Israeli political reality.
*Gabriel Haritos, PhD Postdoctoral Fellow, Ben -Gurion Research Institute , Ben-Gurion University of the Negev Senior Fellow, Cyprus Center for European and International Affairs , University of Nicosia.
The original in Greek can be seen on ETHNOS online news service