Rivals Galore Scramble for Netanyahu’s Job – But He’s not Going Yet

Israel is in the grip of election fever. A long line of politicians, both leading lights of opposition parties and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s own Likud, are convinced that he is on his way out, because a snap, mid-term election before the end of the year is inevitable and will sweep him away after three terms in office.
The media are running hard with this forecast, boosting the swelling list of claimants. Some hail from the most unlikely quarters. DEBKA Weekly points for instance at President Reuven Rivlin, aged 77.
In Israel’s short 69-year old history, the presidency is traditionally a ceremonial post, awarded at the end of a distinguished career. It has never been used as a stepping stone for a return to political office. Yet a band of Likudniks is trying to persuade Rivlin that, despite his frail health and new pacemaker, he should lay claim to the party leadership and premiership “as the only figure capable of uniting the right wing factions and leading Likud to another election victory.”
A couple of other bidders make no bones about their ambition. One is Transport Minister Yisrael Katz, 62, who does not mind being nicknamed “the bulldozer” for his herculean feats in building a countrywide net of modern highways and resuscitating the defunct rail system. He has turned three sluggish railway lines into a multi-branched fast train system, which connects the northern and southern regions to the national commercial and financial capital, Tel Aviv.
At the same time, Katz also built himself a personal support system for his candidacy as next prime minister, by taking control of the Likud’s powerful central committee. He insists that he is running to succeed Netanyahu not displace him and will wait for the prime minister to retire before stepping up. Despite his party following and excellent performance, Katz is not a captivating public speaker and has yet to make his mark with the general public
Likud presents another three lesser contestants for party leader and future prime minister. They are Yuval Steinitz, Minister of Energy; Former Shin Bet Director Avi Dichter, who is Chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Security Committee and threw his hat in the ring last month; and a veteran Netanyahu loyalist Tzachi Henegbi, Minister for Regional Cooperation and Communications. He is respected inside and outside the party. All three are in their sixties.
The group challenging Netanyahu outside Likud is led most vigorously and brashly by would-be prime minister Naftali Bennett, 45, Education Minister. He heads the pro-settlement, national-religious Jewish Home party. An outstanding officer in the IDF’s elite Sayeret Matkal, he went into politics after making a fortune as a high-tech entrepreneur. Bennett’s clashes with Netanyahu on an array of issues, including military controversies, are a regular feature of national politics.
He is widely credited as aspiring to take over Likud and place himself at the head of the national right-wing camp. His critics disqualify him – both on the grounds of his uncompromising, nationalist outlook and the speed with which he operates on thorny domestic and foreign policy issues, which often cause him to stumble into errors.
Bennett may decide to impede a US-brokered peace deal with the Palestinians if, in the course of the Trump administration’s peace effort, Netanyahu agrees to give away what he sees as too much land and control to the Palestinians, at the expense of the half a million Jews who have made their homes in Judea and Samaria.
Another right-wing leader in the running is Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, 59, founder of Israel Beitenu. He started out as chief of staff during Netanyahu’s early days as prime minister and Likud leader, then broke away from the party to found Israel Beitenu. He has held one cabinet post after another, including foreign affairs in 2009-2012.
Lieberman’s party started out with 15 Knesset members (in the 120-seat House) and dwindled to seven in the last election two years ago. Netanyahu lifted him off the opposition benches in 2016 to take over as defense minister after Moshe Ya’alon resigned this post. He is now back at center stage of national politics.
Ya’alon, who is seething over losing his cabinet seat, this week formally quit Likud, founded a new party and launched a campaign for national leadership. He has his work cut out to win a national following. – certainly in time for snap election, if the forecasts pan out and a vote takes place before the end of 2017.
The only serious contender for national leadership outside the right-wing camp is Yair Lapid, 54, founder and leader of Yesh Atid (Future), who switched to politics from a successful career as a popular TV presenter. As finance minister in Netanyahu’s second cabinet, his first foray into executive office, he did not exactly shine.
Although Future tops the latest opinion polls ahead of Likud, Lapid’s past reputation as a playboy is hard to live down. In most parts of the population, he doesn’t make the grade as a serious national leader capable of managing Israel’s complex social problems and profound security issues, although his main appeal is to seekers of change.
While the queue of pushers for the prime minister’s job grows, Netanyahu shows no sign of relinquishing the helm of government. They are all avidly watching the police investigations against him on charges of improperly accepting or soliciting gifts from friendly tycoons and conducting negotiations with the publisher of the Yedioth Aharonot tabloid, hoping they will end in an indictment and force his resignation.
However, the prime minister has made it clear that he will fight any charges against him from the prime minister’s office. The longer the list of bidders scrambling for his job, the more stubbornly he sticks to it.

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