After winning four terms, the last three straight, the question of who will replace Netanyahu has become a routine conversation topic in the corridors of power. I disagree, as I always have, with those who feel that Netanyahu’s demise is imminent. As long as Netanyahu’s right-religious bloc is leading in the polls – he is safe. However, assuming Netanyahu is not a vampire or Shimon Peres, someone will eventually need to replace him, and it is worthwhile to explore the question of who that might be.
It’s a loaded question. I’ve found that a great majority of the people who are discussing Netanyahu’s imminent demise have actually been consistently saying the very same thing, every few months or so, since he returned to the Prime Minister’s residence in 2009, resembling the boy who cried wolf. Many of Netanyahu’s supporters will tell you that it is a pointless conversation topic because he is capable of leading Israel for another ten years, which is also unlikely. Based on the current bloc situation Netanyahu will win his fifth term and his successor will have to keep waiting. Of course in Israeli politics just about anything unpredictable can happen.
I have created a formula for predicting Netanyahu’s successor, the next elected Prime Minister of Israel. The timeline is, of course, less predictable. To qualify for the current list of Netanyahu’s potential successors a candidate must meet one of the four criteria below. As we get closer to the next election the deadlines will eliminate criteria 3 and 4, leaving us with the first two.
1) A current non-Haredi, non-Arab leader of a party with the potential of winning double-digit seats (10 or more) in Phase 1 of the next election.
2) A party leader that is capable of winning both Phase 2 and Phase 3 of the election process.
3) A current candidate for the leadership of a party that will meet criteria 1 on Election Day.
4) A future candidate, an outsider or current politician, who could possibly be a party leader of a current or new party that will meet criteria 1 on Election Day.
We will start with a process of elimination that begins with examining the experienced veterans of Knesset and proving why none of them meet the criteria to qualify as a serious candidate to replace Netanyahu.
On May 29, 1996, a little over 20 years ago, Benjamin Netanyahu was elected to his first term when he defeated Shimon Peres in a direct election by less than 1% (29,457) of the vote. Since then Netanyahu has spent over ten years as Prime Minister.
15 of the 120 MKs remain from Netanyahu’s first term. You can divide them into two groups. The first group remembers a pre-Netanyahu-led Knesset. Prime Minister Netanyahu himself, former Science Minister Begin (Likud), former Justice Minister Hanegbi (Likud), Appropriations Committee Chairman Gafni (UTJ) and former Defense Minister Peretz (Zionist Union) were all elected in 1988. Aryeh Deri (Shas), who is currently in his third stint as Interior Minister, was first appointed as Interior Minister in 1988 and entered the Knesset in 1992.
The second group entered Knesset during Netanyahu’s first term and lived through his first electoral loss in 1999. Deputy Speaker Vaknin (Shas), Religious Services Minister Azulai (Shas), Deputy Finance Minister Cohen (Shas), Speaker Edelstein (Likud), Deputy Education Minister Parush (UTJ), Immigration & Absorption Minister Landver (Yisrael Beitenu), former Minister Cabel (Zionist Union), Law, Justice and Constitution Committee Chairman Slomiansky (Bayit Yehudi) and Transportation Minister Katz (Likud).
If you have ever spoken to any of the 14 you would know they have plenty to say about the 15th member from back in the “old days”. The difference between the two groups is that everyone in the former group has taken at least one break from the Knesset, so they also have an outsider’s perspective, which might be why most of them are not interested in running for Prime Minister. Most of the latter group’s members have remained in Knesset consistently and belong to sectorial parties. I’m bringing this up because endorsements, from both the first group and the second group, will be key as a veteran authority who has been around during the Netanyahu years and has also experienced how other Prime Ministers operated. The media play of Former Prime Minister Barak’s remarks at the Herzliya Conference, even though he has no plans to lead a party, illustrate the point.
Of the 14, the seven Haredi MKs Gafni, Deri, Vaknin, Azulai, Cohen and Parush will never run for Prime Minister. You can disqualify another five MKs with Begin, Hanegbi, Landver, Slomiansky and Edelstein, who have not voiced any interest in running for party leadership. That leaves Amir Peretz and Yisrael Katz.
Peretz has expressed interest in running for the Labor Party leadership. A recent poll had him in fourth place in the primaries, and this is for the leadership of a party that has dropped in the polls significantly in recent months. He is a former Defense Minister and Labor Party leader and that is good enough to rank Peretz in the top 20, but he is not among the top 5 or top 10 candidates for Prime Minister.
Katz makes the most compelling case. He is the veteran of the three current ministers who served as a minister in Netanyahu’s second, third, and fourth cabinets (Erdan and Steinitz are the others). Katz, #4 in Likud behind Netanyahu, Erdan, and Speaker Edelstein, has been the only one to stay in his ministry for all three terms, and he has become a very popular Transportation Minister. Katz is the de-facto Deputy Prime Minister because he steps in when Netanyahu is overseas. The above reasoning would put him in many analysts’ top five choices. I chose to keep him out because he is not likely to win the Likud leadership and has zero appeal outside his party. I think he is in the #6 position, just one scandal away from the top five. Despite his veteran status, as his recent Herzliya Conference speech indicated, he is still not a seasoned enough statesman or policy maker to lead a major Israeli party. However, he will still be a serious contender.
Let’s get to the media’s favorite past time – talking about the potential candidates. The four main names that are thrown around to lead a potential new party are former Likud #2 Gideon Saar, former Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon, and two former IDF Chiefs of Staff (COS) Gaby Ashkenazi and Benny Gantz. Other names that are used for decoration for the potential party are another former Likud #2 Silvan Shalom, former Kulanu Minister Avi Gabay, Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai, MK Orly Levy, former Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, and former Education Minister Shai Piron.
I view this potential party as impractical because even if it could get everyone on one ticket and met criteria #1 – it would be impossible to meet criteria #2 without the list splitting. It is more likely that we have multiple new lists with some of the above personalities choosing to sit it out.
I actually believe Yaalon’s new party might have been created just so that he could get the Defense Ministry, similar to Moshe Kahlon’s party that was created so that he could get the Finance Ministry. Kahlon learned before Saar and Erdan that Netanyahu would not give a Likud #2 a good portfolio. Netanyahu has not given the Likud #2 a senior portfolio since he fired his Defense Minister Yitzchak Mordechai in 1999. I think Saar, Ashkenazi, and Galant would all join a Netanyahu government as Defense Minister if their party failed to form a coalition.
Last Thursday I was at the Herzliya Conference where I watched Moshe Yaalon announce he will run for Prime Minister in the next election. While all of the reporters were busying polishing up their Yaalon stories, I was among the only people to walk over to the side room to hear Tzipi Livni indirectly criticize Yaalon for not going far enough in his views on the Palestinians. Livni called for other parties and outside figures to join the Zionist Union so that the election will be a choice between two large camps instead of splitting the votes even further. After Livni’s speech it was revealed that Lapid’s former #2 Piron formed a new movement called Pnima with Ashkenazi and Gantz.
Despite what the current news cycle might be telling you – the truth is that you won’t have a party of five former COS in Barak, Mofaz, Yaalon, Ashkenazi and Gantz on the same list. We are talking about way too many egos for one party. Barak fired Ashkenazi. Mofaz fired Yaalon. Ashkenazi and Yaalon are like oil and water on many national security issues. Why would Barak, a former Prime Minister, agree to come back if he isn’t the leader of a party, especially when he is doing so well on the outside? The decision to leak the formation of Pnima was a direct result of Ashkenazi’s desire to remind everyone that he doesn’t think Yaalon is the answer. Mofaz has no political capital- under his watch Kadima dropped from 28 to 2 seats in 2013. It is more likely that we see each of the former COS fight each other for the Mr. Security title instead of uniting to take on Netanyahu. We are most likely looking at the battle for Defense Minister, not the battle for Prime Minister.
If you add a Yaalon Party, an Ashkenazi-Gantz Party, and a Saar Party, to the already crowded center bloc of parties led by Lapid, Kahlon, Livni and Herzog, it is a recipe for disaster for their bloc. The scenario polls have shown that there is no combination to break the Netanyahu-Bennett-Liberman-Deri-Litzman bloc in a significant manner that would change the political map in a way where Netanyahu would not be the leading candidate for Prime Minister. I concede that if the personalities do find a way to work together as one ticket that they have a great shot at being the largest list, but that alone isn’t enough. Ask Tzipi Livni, who won more seats than Netanyahu in 2009, how that worked for her.
Quick reality check for those that think there is a good shot of a joint ticket. Yaalon has reportedly told everyone that he refuses to be a #2. Supposedly, Gantz is willing to concede to his predecessor and friend Ashkenazi, but not to anyone else. Gantz certainly won’t accept a #3 position. Saar was sick of being Netanyahu’s #2 and is not expected to return as someone else’s #2.
Before moving on, I’m going to emphasize why I’m not a believer in the success of this new scenario party because a lot of people are going to have a tough time with the fact that the leader of this magical list will not appear in my top five. The biggest issue here is that the number of portfolios that need to be distributed to make a party like this work internally would prevent it from being able to offer anything substantial to other parties in order to secure enough Phase 2 nominations at the President’s Residence or sign the coalition agreements required to pass the Phase 3 Knesset vote. This party will be able to meet criteria #1, but it cannot meet criteria #2, and is therefore disqualified from our formula.
Most elections include at least one new party choice, so there likely will be an outsider candidate. I do have Saar in my top 5, but as a candidate that runs in the Likud Primary, not leading a scenario list. If Saar doesn’t run and/or Kahlon decides to give his party to someone else instead of merging with the Likud, then the top five could include someone like Ashkenazi or Galant, both of whom I’m currently ranking outside of the top five but within the top ten.
Remember the Center Party of Netanyahu’s first former Likud #2 and Defense Minister Yitzchak Mordechai, former IDF COS Amnon Shahak, former liberal Likud Minister Dan Meridor and Tel Aviv Mayor Roni Milo started as the anti-Netanyahu camp’s great hope but the party finished with six seats as the many egos of the party caused internal damage that could not be repaired. The opposing camp knows how to do opposition research and find the correct way to help the personalities on the other side tear each other apart.
There are ten lists currently represented in the Knesset. To be Prime Minister you need to actively run for it or at least express a desire to run for it. Five of the ten lists have removed themselves from the equation. Odeh, Deri, Litzman, Gal-On, and Kahlon lead parties – The Joint Arab List, Shas, UTJ, Meretz, and Kulanu – that are not meant to run for the leadership of the country.
The Likud was formed in 1973 as a collection of parties looking to replace the establishment that had built the country. They succeeded in 1977. The Zionist Union is a recycled version of the old establishment Labor Party which views itself as the alternative to the Likud. Herzog did finish second in the last election.
Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid won 19 seats in 2013 and jumped to 30 seats in post-election polling. Lapid led the largest party into the Knesset Elections, when Likud had just 18 seats. The Knesset Jeremy Polling Average has Lapid as the current #2 and alternative to the Netanyahu government on paper.
Although Liberman and Bennett lead what are considered by many to be satellite parties on the right of Likud, it is no secret that both view themselves as Prime Minister material. It remains to be seen if they pursue that with their own party or if they seek to create their own alliance of parties and individuals, or perhaps participate in a merger of parties that would crown one of them leader.
The Zionist Union won 24 seats in the last election. An average of the 20 polls since the election have Herzog’s party at 15.5 seats and the list is down to 13.1 in the average of the seven polls conducted over the last two months, hitting a low of 8 seats in a poll conducted a few weeks ago. The future of Livni’s Party is in question. Livni’s former #2, Peretz, switched alliances within the Faction to Labor, and Livni’s current #2 is her former Kadima colleague Yoel Hasson. Hasson, who knew when to jump ship last time around, has been telling his colleagues that the Zionist Union atmosphere has become very similar to the atmosphere in Kadima before its collapse.
The future of the ZU is uncertain at best. Herzog is no longer polling in the top two spots required to go on to the second round of voting for the Labor Party leadership. The leading candidate Shelly Yacimovich has not even decided if she wants to run again for the party leadership or perhaps run for the leadership of the Israeli Histadrut Worker’s Union. It says a lot when the leading candidate isn’t sure if she wants the job over something on the outside. Ashkenazi and Gantz’s decision not to join the Labor Party, and Tel Aviv Mayor Huldai’s hesitation, speaks volumes about how leading figures in the center-left bloc view the future of the Zionist Union. With the country slowing moving to the right it has become clear to many people that the future of the center bloc is either Yesh Atid or creating a new political framework to the right of the Zionist Union. With the ZU trending down, I am disqualifying the leader and all of the potential Labor leadership candidates from the top 5 at this time.
We have disqualified a lot of current, past, and future politicians from replacing Netanyahu as Prime Minister. Let’s start building our list of who the top 5 are based on the formula and criteria we have been discussing.
- Gilad Erdan. Likud’s current #2.
Whoever replaces Netanyahu as the leader of Likud will be a leading candidate to serve as Israel’s next Prime Minister. Erdan entered the Knesset as part of the Likud class of 2003 that produced the previous Likud #2s Gideon Saar and Moshe Kahlon. Erdan’s strategy of playing it safe, not messing up, waiting it out, and outlasting other rivals, has helped him reach this point. To win the Likud leadership you need to win a Likud Primary, and Erdan has proven time and time again that he knows how to be competitive in internal Likud elections.
Of the current MKs Erdan seems to be the best positioned to be Likud’s next leader. Speaker Edelstein is more likely to wait for a run at President over a bitter leadership primary. Hanegbi and Begin, the last MKs standing from Netanyahu’s first cabinet, are both considered to be moderates and have less support among the rank-and-file activists than they used to. Aside from Erdan, Yisrael Katz and Steinitz are the only two current ministers to have served in Netanyahu’s last three cabinets. Steinitz was #9 on the 2009 Likud list but after a term as Finance Minister dropped to #16 for 2013 before improving to #13 for the 2015 Election. It is difficult to see Steinitz’s path to Likud’s leadership. Katz is a more compelling case as we explored earlier, but I still rank Erdan above him. If there is no outsider candidate in the Likud primary Katz would most likely meet Erdan in the second round.
- Gideon Saar. The outsider Likud candidate
If Saar does decide to run, and he has many reasons why he might prefer to remain out of politics, he will be the leading outsider candidate. I think it is more likely that Saar runs in the Likud as an outsider candidate. Other Likud outsider candidates such as UN Ambassador Danny Danon or perhaps Moshe Yaalon could be interesting, but Saar has a much more compelling case. Saar is not just popular in the Likud. He enjoys popularity with many sectors, from Haredim and national religious to Arabs and the LGBTQ community. He is the type of guy who has built up enough relationships to foreseeably check off both criteria 1 and 2 on our list.
Saar is the only MK to win two consecutive primaries for the top MK slot in the party. The future Likud leadership matchup of the past #2 and the current #2 is the type of matchup that was popular gossip around the 2013 election and it still seems to be the plausible round two matchup, assuming Saar does run within the Likud.
Danon has been elected to the Likud’s top 10 in the last two primaries and will put up double-digit numbers if he does decide to run. There is no room for two outsider candidates in a two-round primary election so Danon won’t advance if Saar is running. Yaalon is reportedly considering running in a different party, but for now remains a card-carrying Likud member. Yaalon was #8 on the Likud lists in 2009 and 2013, and after a term as Defense Minister improved to #7 in 2015. Reading the internal political map it is unlikely that Yaalon would defeat Saar as the outsider candidate in Likud. Danon would probably receive more votes than Yaalon in an internal Likud primary that is expected to have at least half a dozen candidates.
- Yair Lapid – The non-right-wing alternative
Yesh Atid has returned to 19 seats if you average the 20 public polls conducted since the election. If you look at the seven May and June polls the average is slightly higher – at 19.9 seats. That number has been increasing slowly and steadily. Yesh Atid received a 19.8 average in the five March and April polls. Lapid can improve his numbers instantly if he can snag Ashkenazi, Gantz or perhaps steal Galant from Kulanu to run as his #2 and Defense Minister candidate. Another option is to try to convince Kahlon to merge with Yesh Atid instead of the Likud in return for the #2 spot. It is a lot more likely Kulanu merges into Likud. If former Health Minister and former Meretz Herzliya Mayor Yael German remains Yesh Atid’s #2, Lapid will have a real problem because she would most likely be the least electable of the top lists’ #2s and the furthest to the left.
It will depend a lot on the Phase 1 breakdown, and it will be challenging, but not impossible, for Lapid to pass Phase 2 without the Haredi parties, but he would probably need Bennett and Liberman to do it. As crazy as that scenario might sound to you it is important to understand that the path forward for the Zionist Union and the other non-right-wing alternatives are even more difficult. None of the Zionist Union or scenario party candidates have a shot at Bennett or Liberman, and a Netanyahu-led Likud Party would try to create a stalemate to force a re-election. Yesh Atid has no primaries, central committee, or ego issues and can play Phases 2 and 3 a lot easier.
- Avigdor Liberman – Defense Minister & 2-Term Foreign Minister
The saying goes that you can’t be a serious candidate for Prime Minister unless you have held office in the Defense, Foreign or Finance Ministries. Over the last thirty years, only four people have held at least two of the three top portfolios: Silvan Shalom, Shimon Peres, Ehud Barak and Benjamin Netanyahu. Liberman, who is running a party of five MKs is sitting in the top ministry and has become a serious contender for Prime Minister – assuming he can prove himself in the position.
We have moved from more of a party to a personality type system but you still need a party to run in. What platform would Liberman use to accomplish it? Well, it is probably safe to say it won’t be Yisrael Beitenu. We are likely talking about a new brand or package. As long as the right-religious bloc has 61 or more seats it is possible for Liberman to become Prime Minister if his list receives more within the bloc than Likud. Liberman has the ability to go with either Yesh Atid or Shas-UTJ as coalition partners. Lapid could justify joining with Liberman if the right-religious bloc has 61 without him.
- Naftali Bennett – The Leader of Israel’s Right
When Netanyahu and Liberman had their joint press conference welcoming the regional initiative it left the right-wing stage completely empty. Liberman is making the transformation from the leader of a right-wing opposition party to a statesman with eyes back on the grand prize. Netanyahu needs to prove to the international community that he is the same guy who was willing to give Herzog the Foreign Ministry. This transforms Bennett, who promised to prevent the withdrawal of land as long as he is in the government, into the leader of Israel’s right. Bennett is racking up right-wing points at home as Netanyahu, Liberman and Kahlon are all busy trying to prove that they are not right-wing abroad. Bennett is free to say he is the true right when everyone else is too afraid to do so or fight him for it.
Netanyahu has led Likud into six general elections, and it was his sixth election in which he won 30 seats – the most he has ever won – achieved by convincing Bayit Yehudi voters to move to Likud to prevent a Herzog-led government. Netanyahu’s recent statements are making it very difficult for Likud to steal right-wing votes again from Bayit Yehudi. Bennett was polling at 20 seats before Netanyahu moved to the right during the general election. As recently as March 28th Bennett told Yediot Achronot, “Today we are the only party that clearly says this country won’t give up a centimeter of land. Today we have eight seats, I think we will reach 30 seats and we will lead a clear policy.” Somebody who is talking about reaching 30 seats is not running to be a junior coalition partner.
As long as the right-religious bloc has at least 61 seats, Bennett just needs to lead the list that does the best in the bloc to lead the country. For now, with just eight seats, he is far off from accomplishing that goal.
In conclusion, Netanyahu’s five potential successors are the top two candidates to lead the Likud (Gilad Erdan and Gideon Saar), the non-right-candidate (Yair Lapid), and the two candidates that are trying to win the right from outside of the Likud (Avigdor Liberman and Naftali Bennett). It could change tomorrow, but if you look at the current polling data including the various scenario polls, those are the top five names for today.
KnessetJeremy Polling Average – The Israeli Poll of Polls: https://knessetjeremy.com/knessetjeremy-polling-average-the-israeli-poll-of-polls/