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The Race to Replace Bibi

Binyamin Rose - Issue #653

New Candidates and Parties Vie for Attention

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

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NATURAL CAUSES Under Israeli law, the bar for indicting a sitting prime minister is high, so if Bibi is to be unseated, natural causes, and not criminal charges, will be the likely culprit (Photos: AFP/Imagebank)

I srael’s next Knesset election must be held no later than November 5, 2019.

Israel’s next Knesset election will probably be held much earlier than November 5, 2019.

How much earlier? That depends on many factors, the most important of which is whether Prime Minister Netanyahu will be indicted for petty bribery for receiving free cigars from wealthy friends from chutz l’aretz even though Bibi says he is now under doctor’s orders to reduce his tobacco intake due to a chronic sinus condition. Bibi also might be indicted for a far more heinous crime: haggling with a wealthy Israeli enemy to garner better media coverage.

Bibi rattled investigators last week when he excused himself for 30 minutes in the middle of a fourth round of questioning, to accept a phone call from President Trump — on his dime — to discuss the slightly weightier issues of Iran, Russia, and Syria. While police cooled their heels, pundits scratched their heads, speculating if Netanyahu and Trump colluded on the timing of the call or if it was a mere coincidence.

Once police conclude their investigation, it’s Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit’s call to clear Bibi, or pull the plug on his political career. Under Israeli law, the bar for indicting a sitting prime minister is high, so if Bibi is to be unseated, natural causes, and not criminal charges, will be the likely culprit.

On March 31, Netanyahu will celebrate his eighth anniversary as prime minister. His doctor will advise him on whether he can light up a stogie to celebrate that milestone, but any such celebration could be short-lived.

It’s not clear what spark might ignite new elections. While Knesset members are always restlessly jockeying for position, the recent frenetic levels of political activity in all the major parties is a strong indication that the politicians smell the demise of the current government.

Just last week, Yair Lapid, who tops many public opinion polls, publicized a list of seven mayors of regional councils whom he induced to defect to his party from Likud and Labor. Lapid has also been regularly courting the chareidim, so far with no success. But Lapid will keep trying: he knows it is virtually impossible to form a coalition without chareidi parties and their growing political clout.

The dying embers of Israel’s Labor Party were briefly revived last week with announcements from several new candidates vying for the party’s leadership in its July 3 primary.

Bennett and Lapid see themselves as frontrunners in race to replace Bibi

Netanyahu has a host of rivals who could contest his leadership inside the Likud, such as Miri Regev or Gideon Saar, and faces competition from new parties that could lure away Likud voters. These include the man Bibi fired as defense minister — Moshe (Boogie) Yaalon. Boogie absorbed a hard slap to the face with the recent State Comptroller’s report criticizing his conduct of Operation Protective Shield. He sloughed it off, throwing his beret in the ring as head of a new party. Moshe Feiglin, a perennial thorn in Bibi’s side, also formed a new party two weeks ago, one that will insist on Jewish sovereignty in Judea and Samaria.

And then there’s Ayelet Shaked and Naftali Bennett of the Jewish Home Party, who are pushing Netanyahu on the sovereignty issue as well. If they bolt the coalition over this issue, Netanyahu loses his Knesset majority.

Both Shaked and Bennett are riding high now. Shaked’s recent success in ramming through the confirmations of three conservative judges among a group of four to replace four retiring leftist Supreme Court justices is testimony to her political acumen. She told the press last week that she might run for prime minister one day.

That “one day” might come sooner than we think. Would Naftali Bennett abdicate his position at the top of the ticket to make room for Shaked? If the polls tell him Jewish Home could win the next election with Shaked as party leader, he might do it, and console himself with the high-profile position of defense or foreign minister.

Or Bennett might even jump ship to the Likud. A poll taken at the end of January showed that the Likud under Bennett could win more seats than Yair Lapid. Bennett even remarked last week that he might consider merging his party with the Likud to stop Lapid.

One last option: Netanyahu himself, cleared of charges, calls a snap election, promoting himself as the only Israeli leader with the savvy, experience and the personality to get along famously with Trump, and beating all of his opponents to the draw. In Israel, where anything is possible politically, one can never say never.

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