Clock tickets for Netanyahu and Likud rivals overcome ‘Bibi veto’ to set the stage for succession

Future leadership hopeful Gideon Sa’ar performs strongly in governing party primary despite PM's intervention


Members of Israel’s ruling party delivered a rebuke to their leader Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday by electing his critics to prominent spots on its list of election candidates.

Likud is one of only three parties in Israel that selects its candidates list in party-wide primaries. The others, Labour and Meretz, will hold theirs next week.

The prime minister himself was not on the ballot paper: as party leader, he automatically tops the list.

A particularly humiliating blow was delivered through the election of Gideon Sa’ar, the man Mr Netanyahu has publicly accused of underminding his leadership, to fourth place.

For the top three slots, 59,000 Likudniks chose:

  • Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, who tried to prevent Mr Netanyahu from muscling in on the annual Independence Day opening event, traditionally the preserve of the speaker;
  • Transport Minister Yisrael Katz, who had a public row with the prime minister over infrastructure work on Shabbat;
  • Internal Security Minister Gilad Erdan, blamed by Mr Netanyahu’s inner circle for not doing enough to curb the police investigations against him.

But fourth-placed Gideon Sa’ar was without doubt the big winner, after having been publicly accused by Mr Netanyahu only last Sunday of having conspired with President Reuven Rivlin against him.

Mr Sa’ar vehemently denied the accusation and for once, none of Likud’s senior politicians came out on the prime minister’s side.

These results showed rank-and-file members were not with him either.

Mr Netanyahu’s intervention on the eve of the primary was a clear attempt to convince them not to vote for Mr Sa’ar and push him as far possible down the list.

One envious Likud minister said: “Bibi did a great favour to Gideon. He tried to take him down but instead built him up as a candidate to succeed him.”

Netanyahu loyalists did not fare as well in the primary. In the top 10 spots, only Culture Minister Miri Regev (fifth) and Tourism Minister Yariv Levin (seventh) are seen as his diehard supporters.

Other MKs who acted as his enforcers in the Knesset — former and current Likud whips David Bitan and Dudi Amsalem, and Knesset Committee chairman Miki Zohar — took barely viable spots on the list.

At this point, no one in Likud is openly challenging the prime minister. Even Mr Sa’ar continued to express his support for Mr Netanyahu’s leadership while denying the allegations against him.

But the primary result is a clear indication of feeling in the party: that the leader’s days are numbered and that even if Likud wins the election on April 9, Mr Netanyahu will be forced to resign as prime minister before long because of the criminal indictments expected against him.

The top four of Speaker Edelstein, ministers Katz and Erdan and Mr Sa’ar, who served in the past as education and interior minister before taking a break from frontline politics in 2015, looks like a desire by the party membership to rally around a veteran leadership team that can ensure an orderly transition at the end of the Netanyahu era.

Mr Edelstein is widely expected to run for the ceremonial role of president in two years when Reuven Rivlin’s term expires.

The next three names on the list are all expected to run for party leadership.

Mr Sa’ar, having overcome the “Bibi veto”, now looks like the potential frontrunner when the day, perhaps not too distant, arrives.

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