Even If Netanyahu Agrees To Forgo Office, He Could Emerge as the Most Powerful of Pols

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The New York Sun

The talk of the town is a plea deal reportedly in the making for Benjamin Netanyahu, a pact that would do something that was once impossible to imagine — namely, force him to leave politics. If negotiations come to fruition, though, what would a Bibi-less Israel look like?

Who, say, would lead Likud? Could a government currently supported by a hybrid left-right coalition last? Will Yair Lapid still become prime minister in 2023? Or might a Bibi-less Likud emerge in a stronger position than before?

Mr. Netanyahu is playing coy. “There is no update,” the ex-premier told members of his Likud Party today. Referring to the contacts between his legal eagles and the prosecutor, Attorney General Avichai Mandleblit, Mr. Netanyahu promised an update when appropriate.

For a week, endless speculations and leaks centered on a proposal to end the prosecutorial phase of the former prime minister’s storied political career. Under the reported deal, criminal charges against Mr. Netanayahu, 72, would be dropped, while he would be barred from participating in politics for seven years.

In a surprise move, a former Supreme Court Justice, Aharon Barak — much maligned by the Israeli right, which accused the justice of judicial activism — said he was negotiating the deal on behalf of the long-time right-wing leader. Mr. Barak said he wanted to end political divisions that are tearing the country apart.

A deal could still collapse, as Mr. Mandleblit’s term ends late this month. His successor is yet to be named. Let’s assume, though, that there’s an agreement in the next two weeks, nominally ending Mr. Netanyahu’s career as statesman. What’s next?

In respect of Likud, one can bet the behind the scenes battle to lead the Knesset’s largest party has already begun. One name gaining buzz is that of a former mayor of Jerusalem, Nir Barkat, who is openly vying for Likud leadership. Other party stalwarts who have long eyed the role are a Likud member of the Knesset, Israel Katz, and, notably, right wing firebrand Zeev Elkin.

Then again, too, the big Likud coup would be a triumphant homecoming for Gideon Saar. After unsuccessfully challenging Mr. Netanyahu for the leadership, Mr. Saar bolted Likud last year and formed the New Hope party. At the time he said he couldn’t serve on the same list as an indicted party member.

While Likud currently is out of government, New Hope is in, with Mr. Saar as minister of education. Considered one of the wiliest back-room operators in Israel’s politics, Mr. Saar’s return could propel him to a prime ministership in a Likud-led government.

Then there is the question of a coalition. Mr. Saar is far from the only member of the current government whose only reason for joining the hybrid left-right coalition was opposition to, and even hatred of, Mr. Netanyahu.

Indeed, an alliance between Prime Minister Bennett’s right wing Yamina party and the leftist Meretz and Labor, the United Arab List, and the centrist Blue and White was until recently considered all but impossible. The current finance minister, Avigdor Liberman, is yet another former Netanyahu protege-turned vehement anti-Bibi player.

A Likud without Mr. Netanyahu could join hands with these and others who in last year’s election stood on an anyone-but-Bibi platform. A solid right, and right of center, coalition could quickly replace the current hybrid government.

Such a political coup could be done through a new election or — preferably for a majority of Israelis who have tired of endless voting cycles — through a vote of no-confidence in the current Knesset. Either way, the result would spell an end to the current coalition, held together only by its members’ desire to get rid of Mr. Netanyahu.

There is, too, a Lapid question. The leader of the center-left Yesh Atid party was the winner of last year’s election. His faction emerged as the country’s second largest, behind Likud, making Yair Lapid a strong candidate for capturing the premiership.

Unable to gather enough Knesset support, though, Mr. Lapid joined hands with Yamina and the other members of the hybrid coalition. In a two-year rotation deal that stunned political observers, Mr. Lapid agreed to serve as foreign minister under Mr. Bennett.

In June 2023, according to the agreement, Mr. Lapid would become prime minister, sending Mr. Bennett to the foreign ministry. Yet it’s a question as to whether their deal would survive the Big Bang of Mr. Netayahu’s departure.

Other possible scenarios include a departure in name only. Getting loyal Likud members to vote for one of his allies as party leader, Mr. Netanyahu, already the longest serving leader in Israel’s history, could maintain power even without a formal title.

Either way, Israelis who have hoped for four years of political stability must now brace themselves to the possibility of renewed turmoil. Even in departure, Mr. Netayahu’s presence could be overpowering.


Twitter @bennyavni

Image: Benjamin Netanyahu with his wife and sons, via his Twitter account.

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