Primaries for Israel’s largest political party are supposed to take place in May and the media is already discussing potential successors of the former PM. The ex-prime minister’s position is currently secure, but for how long that remains the case is uncertain.
A plea bargain between former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the prosecution, in which he would evade a prison sentence in exchange for abstaining from politics for the next seven years, seems to be off the table. Netanyahu, who is currently on trial for charges of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust in a series of graft probes, has reportedly rejected the deal. It appears that Netanyahu would prefer to have his day in court. But Israeli media outlets are still discussing his potential departure from the political scene and who his successor might be.
From High-Tech to Politics
According to a recent poll conducted by Channel 13, most Likud supporters believe that Nir Barkat, the former mayor of Jerusalem, should take Netanyahu’s place as the leader of Israel’s largest political party.
Barkat is known for making a fortune in high-tech deals before becoming engaged in politics and becoming mayor. He is appreciated in Likud and is seen as an economic expert who could steer the nation’s economy through its current hardships. His critics think otherwise. In 2015, it was reported that as the mayor of Jerusalem Barkat approved the construction of 7,000 residential units in the Arab neighbourhood of A-Sawahira in East Jerusalem. At the time, right-wing circles claimed it would pave the way for the division of Jerusalem, and they accused Barkat of not being conservative enough. Another point of criticism has revolved around his political achievements. Barkat never served as a minister in Netanyahu’s governments, and some say this lack of experience will decrease his chances of assuming the leading position in the party. Barkat himself doesn’t see it as a challenge. At the beginning of January, he addressed this issue in an interview he granted to an Israeli news website.
“Netanyahu became a prime minister without serving as a minister first. From my experience as the mayor of Jerusalem, I know the issues that bother Israeli society much better than some of the ministers”, he said.
“Jerusalem is a mini-state. You need to understand education, social issues, infrastructure, the Ultra-Orthodox community, the Arabs, the status-quo, and security. Everything…it is easy to learn the procedures, understanding Israel’s biggest challenges is much more difficult”, he argued. During the interview, Barkat also stressed that he was the only one who could bring Likud – that’s currently in the opposition – back to power, and this is something that worries the current coalition. At the end of December, the Knesset passed a bid in its first reading that would limit the ability of a parliamentarian to fund their elections campaign, something that Barkat was counting on. If this bid becomes law, Barkat might find it more difficult to secure the necessary funds and that means assuming a leadership role might be in doubt.
Chief Spy as the Head of Likud?
Another potential contender to head Likud is the former chief of the Israeli spy agency Mossad, Yossi Cohen, who garnered the support of 12 percent of respondents in a Channel 11 survey. On the international stage, his name is associated with the Abraham Accords, a historic agreement between Israel, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain inked in September 2020. And he was the one who worked hard to make sure that other Muslim states would follow suit. In Israel, his name is linked to the assistance Mossad provided during the first wave of the pandemic, bringing in millions of face masks, hazmat suits, gloves, and medicine. Although that boosted his ratings, his reputation has been marred by him being considered a close ally of Netanyahu and his alleged extramarital affair with a married stewardess.
Next in line is former Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz, who received the support of 10 percent of Likud voters. In his ten years in office, he built many roads, launched an electric train, and invested billions in the expansion of Israel’s infrastructure. But he will also be remembered as a man who failed to tackle the rising number of accidents and who didn’t manage to solve the acute traffic jam problem in the country. While he has often been hailed as a bulldozer and as somebody who can get things moving, he is also a man with zero charisma for many rivals, and this may hamper his chances of heading Likud. For now, everyone in the party appears to be united in their support of Netanyahu. Even the aforementioned contenders acknowledge his leadership. In May, however, things might change, when Likud holds party primaries, but until that happens Bibi’s position remains unchallenged.