Analysis: Who could replace Netanyahu?

The formal decision by Israel’s national police chief, Roni Alsheikh, to recommend indicting Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu on a range of corruption charges has many on the left heralding the end of the Likud leader. Opposition leader Avi Gabbay proclaimed “The Netanyahu era is over”.

Such pronouncements may be premature. The crucial decision on whether or not to formally indict Netanyahu and take him to court will be made by Avichai Mandelblit, Israel’s Attorney General. Alsheikh has now passed all the relevant evidence to Mandelblit’s office, but the decision on indictment could take months.

In the meantime, Netanyahu’s political future is dependent on the support of his own party and his coalition partners. The former is iron-clad: the Likud abhors regicide, having only had five leaders since its founding as an ideological movement in the 1920s. The latter is on shakier ground, but the leaders of both Kulanu and Jewish Home have said they will support the coalition for the foreseeable future – meaning they will wait until Mandelblit makes his move.

But should Mandelblit decide to indict Netanyahu it will be game over for the Israeli PM. Who are the runners and riders who could replace him?

There are four candidates from within the Likud. The frontrunner is Gideon Sa’ar, Likud’s one-time prodigal son, who was the party’s most popular minister until his decision to take a break from politics in late 2014. Sa’ar has since returned to politics, emphasising his credentials as a security hawk.

But Sa’ar is also a sharp Tel Aviv lawyer, amateur DJ, and married to one of Israel’s leading news anchors, and he has defended the police and judiciary from right-wing attacks. His suave media image and liberal lifestyle means Sa’ar appeals to many centrist voters and is the candidate the centre-left fears most. However there is one key obstacle to his comeback: he does not currently have a seat in the Knesset. Should Mandelblit force Netanyahu’s resignation before the 2019 election, Sa’ar will be out of the game.

In such a scenario the most likely successor to the Likud crown would be Yisrael Katz, the current Transportation Minister. He is the most senior Likud minister after Netanyahu and is hugely popular with party members, hosting an annual party every Sukkot. Katz has been building up his international profile in recent months, but has limited appeal beyond the party faithful – something which would inhibit any run for the top job.

After Sa’ar and Katz there are two other names in the hat: Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein and Public Security minister Gilad Erdan. If the Likud feels the need to restore its image on ethics and public propriety after Netanyahu’s fall, Edelstein would be an impeccable candidate. He is a former Soviet refusenik, imprisoned in Siberia for teaching Hebrew and Judaism to other Russian Jews, who has a high national profile in his Knesset role. Erdan, meanwhile, has security clout and the government’s counter-BDS brief. Both Edelstein and Erdan reject two-states, supporting some form of Palestinian-Jordanian confederation.

A Likud successor presumes a Netanyahu resignation before scheduled elections in 2019. However, Netanyahu could call an early election in an attempt to pre-empt an indictment. This would be a risky move for a normally risk-averse Netanyahu, as a majority of Israelis currently want him to resign. Nonetheless, polls currently give the Likud a lead, albeit a slim one, of 3-4 seats.

Who could defeat the four-time election winner Netanyahu at the ballot box? The current frontrunner is Yair Lapid, the former TV anchor who set up the centrist Yesh Atid party to represent Israel’s secular middle classes. Lapid has made overturning the country’s religion-and-state status quo a key part of his agenda, promising to introduce secular marriage and revoke the ultra-orthodox exemption from national service. He is riding high in the polls, slightly behind the Likud, and with a small swing the Israeli right will be unable to form a coalition without him.

Behind Lapid is new Labor leader Avi Gabbay, who took over from Isaac Herzog earlier this year. Gabbay is in permanent campaign mode and is more likely than Lapid to win over Likud voters, with his rags-to-riches story and Mizrahi background. Labor and Yesh Atid are natural coalition partners, but without a reversal of their current polling positions, Gabbay will likely end up as Lapid’s number two.

There is also the possibility of a political outsider entering (or re-entering) the fray. Three former IDF chiefs of staff all have major political clout: Moshe Ya’alon, Gabi Ashkenazi, and Benny Gantz. Ya’alon is a former Likud defence minister who quit the party, slamming the Likud’s rightward drift. Ashkenazi and Gantz both lean left and would dramatically increase Labor’s credibility on security issues, but have been courted by Labor before to no avail. However, with nearly 20 months left until elections must be called, there is plenty of time for one of these former generals shake up Israel’s political scene – and potentially usurp Netanyahu.