The next Israeli leader after Netanyahu

By Gideon

The Israeli parliament has voted to dissolve itself and elect a new government in April 2019. Historically, a real shift in direction in Israel occurred after a major national trauma such as the 1973 Yom Kippur War and the Palestinian Intifadas.

Life in Israel has been relatively good under the leadership of the right-wing government:  The economy is doing well and  with the exception of short-lived violent eruptions along the border with Gaza, life in Israel is mostly peaceful. The majority of the Jewish- Israeli voters that elected the current right-wing government have no reason to look for an alternative. This view is supported by recent pre-election polls. The polls predict that the Likud party will remain in power after the upcoming election. The political discussion in Israel these days is not about border security and jobs. Israelis are mostly concerned with the growing Arab-Israeli, and ultra-orthodox Jewish, populations. Demographic shifts that are threatening the existence of Israel as a Zionist, secular, Jewish, democratic state.

The uncertainty is more about who will be the right-wing leader that will assemble the new government. Benjamin Netanyahu, the current Israeli prime minister, is facing significant legal challenges that may force him out of power.

For the first time, after many years as a prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu is facing opposition from within the Likud party. His right-wing political rivals sense that Netanyahu is politically vulnerable. They predict that he won’t survive the criminal investigation against him. Netanyahu on the other hand is counting on a strong performance in the election to prevent any legal action against him. The common view in Israel is that Netanyahu will be re-elected as prime minister, but that eventually he will be forced out of office to stand a criminal trial for corruption.

As a prime minister, Netanyahu systematically removed from power all potential political rivals in the Likud party. He did not allow any of his coalition partners who he considered to be threats to hold ministerial positions that could be used by them as springboards to the prime minister office. In his current government he did not appoint a foreign minister. Avigdor Liberman, who was the defense minister, lacked the power to make meaningful decisions and eventually resigned his position. Naftali Bennett, who sees himself as an alternative to Netanyahu, was appointed by Netanyahu to the position of Education Minister. An office which made it difficult for Bennett to prove himself as a national leader.

There is no consensus about Netanyahu’s successor. The day after Netanyahu will be an interesting day to watch. The next Likud leader is likely to be an interim political compromise who won’t have the strong public support that Netanyahu has.

Israel is in a tough neighborhood; any new Israeli prime minister will be challenged by Israel’s enemies soon after he takes office. Hezbollah, Hamas, Iran, and others will probe for weaknesses. A significant escalation in military activities in and around Israel is expected once Israel elects a new leader.

Israel is a pressure cocker that is proven too difficult for most people to successfully govern. It took Netanyahu a second attempt to figure out how to do that.  Any new Israeli prime minister will struggle in his first years in office. Chances are that he won’t survive his first term. The post Netanyahu era is likely to be unstable politically until a new proven leader earns the public trust.

There are three current Likud party leaders who survived Netanyahu. One of them could be his successor:

Gideon Sa’ar is an Israeli politician who left the political life in 2014 after failing to secure a top post in Netanyahu’s government, despite the fact (or maybe because of the fact) that he won the most votes in the Likud primary election. Sa’ar recently resumed his political career after four years of inactivity. He serves as the unofficial leader of Netanyahu’s opposition within the Likud party. Sa’ar previously served as a member of the Knesset for the  Likud between 2003 and 2014. During his time in government, he held the posts of Cabinet Secretary, Chairman of the Coalition Minister of the Interior and Education Minister.

Reuven Rivlin is the current President of Israel since 2014. Rivlin was elected president despite Netanyahu’s objection. He is a member of the Likud party. Rivlin was Minister of Communications from 2001 to 2003, and subsequently served as Speaker of the Knesset from 2003 to 2006, and again from 2009 to 2013.

Israel Katz currently serves as the Minister of Transportation and the Minister of Intelligence and as member of the Security Cabinet of Israel. Yisrael katz enjoys a wide support in the Likud party for the many popular national transportation projects that he oversees. A recent attempt by Netanyahu to discredit Katz was deflected by the Likud party members and Netanyahu was forced to except the fact that Katz is here to stay.

There are few strong right-wing leaders who grew up in the Likud and were forced to start their own political parties to remain politically viable when Netanyahu threatened their political career in the Likud:

Naftali Bennett who led the Jewish Home party between 2012 and 2018. He has served as Israel’s Minister of Education since 2015, and as the Minister of Diaspora Affairs since 2013. Between 2013 and 2015, he held the posts of Minister of Economy and Minister of Religious Services. Naftali Bennett sees himself as the natural right-wing successor to Benjamin Netanyahu. He recently formed the New Right Party that he co-chairs with Ayelet Shaked.

Ayelet Shaked has served as a member of the Knesset for The Jewish Home since 2013, and as Minister of Justice since 2015. Although representing a religious party, Shaked identifies as a secular politician. She is the only secular woman in her party. She is considered one of Israel’s most active and influential legislators and initiated and drafted laws including Israel’s 2016 NGO law, its comprehensive law against terrorism, a version of the basic law proposal on Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, as well as a law limiting the powers of the Israeli Supreme Court. Widely viewed as a potential future Prime Minister, in the opinion of Haaretz, “she is poised to be Israel’s most successful female Israeli politician since Golda Meir”. Shaked co-chairs with Bennett the newly created the New Right Party.

Moshe Kahlon served as a member of the Knesset for Likud and as Minister of Communications and Minister of Welfare & Social Services. He heads the Kulanu party, which he established in November 2014. In 2015 he became the Minister of Finance in Netanyahu’s cabinet. He is known for championing socioeconomic issues like the eradication of poverty and income inequality.

There are leaders in the opposition who earned the trust of significant portions of the Israeli population. The next long-term Israeli prime minister could be one of them.

Yair Lapid is a former journalist serving as Chairman of the Yesh Atid party. He served as Minister of Finance between 2013 and 2014. Prior to his entry into politics in 2012, he was an author, TV presenter and news anchor. The centrist Yesh Atid party, which he founded, became the second largest party in the Knesset by winning 19 seats in its first legislative election in 2013. The greater than anticipated results contributed to Lapid’s reputation as a leading centrist. In 2013, Lapid ranked first on the list of the “Most Influential Jews in the World” by The Jerusalem Post. He was also recognized in 2013 as one of the leading Foreign Policy Global Thinkers and was ranked as one of TIME Magazine’s 100 “Most Influential People in the World.” Currently, Yair Lapid serves in the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee and the Sub-Committee on Intelligence and the Security Services.

Tzipi Livni is a former Foreign Minister of Israel, she is the incumbent Leader of the Opposition, a member of the Knesset for the Zionist Union, and leads the Hatnuah party. She is widely considered the most powerful woman in Israel since Golda Meir, Livni has served in eight different cabinet positions throughout her career, setting the record for most government roles held by an Israeli woman. Consequently, she has achieved several milestones in Israeli government, as the first female Vice Prime Minister, Justice Minister, Agriculture Minister, and Housing Minister. In 2011, she was named one of “150 Women Who Shake the World” by Newsweek and The Daily Beast. From 2006 to 2008, Forbes magazine ranked Livni on its List of 100 Most Powerful Women three years in row, while Time included her in its 2007 “Time 100,” for which U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice penned an op-ed. In Israel, Livni has earned a reputation as an honest politician who sticks to her principles.

In September 2008, Livni prepared to take office as Prime Minister of Israel, but the political climate in the country prevented her from forming a government. The following year, she led her party to win a plurality of seats in the Knesset, but was again blocked from becoming prime minister, due to the rightist parties’ majority in the Knesset. Consequently, she served as Leader of the Opposition from 2009, until her resignation from the Knesset in 2012. Later that year, Livni founded a new party, Hatnuah, to compete in the 2013 elections, after which she was appointed Justice Minister in the Thirty-third government of Israel, again leading a new round of Israeli–Palestinian peace talks. In December 2014, several policy disputes within the government led Benjamin Netanyahu to dismiss Livni from his cabinet and call new elections. In the 2015 election, Livni joined forces with Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog to create the Zionist Union, a unified bloc of their two parties.

Moshe “Bogie” Ya’alon is a former Chief of Staff of the Israel Defense Forces, who also served as Israel’s Defense Minister from 2013 until his resignation on 20 May 2016. Ya’alon announced that he is forming a political party and is intending on running in the upcoming election.

Avraham “Avi” Gabbay is the current leader of the Israeli Labor Party and the Zionist Union. He was CEO of the telecommunications company Bezeq from 2007 to 2013, then entered politics. He served as Minister of Environmental Protection between 2015 and 2016.  Prior to the 2015 Knesset elections he was amongst the founders of the new Kulanu party. Despite not being elected to the Knesset, he was appointed Minister of Environmental Protection in the Netanyanu government. On 27 May 2016, he submitted his resignation from the government in protest at the appointment of Avigdor Lieberman as Minister of Defense and the coalition’s shift to the right. On 29 December 2016, Gabbay announced he would join the Israeli Labor Party, and on 4 March 2017 announced he would run for the Labor Party leadership in the intra-party election for the leadership of the Israeli Labor Party, held in July 2017. The announcement was unusual because he was not a sitting Knesset member at the time. As leader, Gabbay is believed to be leading Labor away from the left.

Benjamin “Benny” Gantz was the 20th Chief of General Staff of the Israel Defense Forces (February 2011 –  February 2015). In December 2018, he established a new political party named Israel Resilience Party. He is is intending on running in the upcoming election.

The next Israeli prime minister is likely to be one of the people listed above.