Israel’s new government was sworn in on Sunday, and along with it came the official expiration date of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s latest term at Israel’s helm. On November 17, 2021, Netanyahu is slated to step down as prime minister and assume the duties of alternate prime minister, swapping spots with Benny Gantz. Whether or not this handover actually happens will be the subject of speculation for the next eighteen months, but irrespective of what ultimately transpires, Netanyahu is now in the position of planning for one of two scenarios. Either he is planning for the next crop of Likud leaders to emerge and take over the party once he transitions out of the dominating position he has held, or he is planning to sideline any serious contenders for the Likud throne who might challenge his continued dominance.
Judging by the new crop of Likud ministers – not only who received which ministries, but who received nothing at all – it is hard to conclude that Netanyahu intends to go anywhere. Not only did Netanyahu make sure that his erstwhile and future Likud rivals were exiled or frozen out of any positions of power, he made sure that external right-wing rivals were relegated to the opposition. The picture that emerges of Likud from its half of the new government is not of a party that is preparing for a transition of any kind. It is a picture of a party that is purposely being frozen in place.
The best way of judging Netanyahu’s intentions is by looking at how he treats the Likud ministers and MKs who are almost universally cited as the likeliest to replace him. That list of names is Gideon Sa’ar, Yisrael Katz, Gilad Erdan, Nir Barkat, and occasionally Yuli Edelstein (though he is thought to be more interested in succeeding President Ruvi Rivlin). Given this group’s profile and experience, any government formation with an eye toward the future would seek to elevate them and their roles, not only to condition Israeli voters to think of them as potential leaders for the country but to make sure that they are gaining the necessary experience and expertise to deal with the complex problems that Israel faces.
Given where these Likud figures ended up, it is hard to conclude that laying a foundation for the future was a consideration. The first maneuver came when Netanyahu appointed Erdan – who finished fourth in the Likud primary – to the dual-hatted role of Israeli ambassador to the United Nations and – following the November presidential election – ambassador to the U.S. Netanyahu has used the UN post before as a way of sending a Likud rival six thousand miles away and taking him out of the regular political mix inside of Israel; the current ambassador, Danny Danon, was a loud and persistent Likud gadfly coming at Netanyahu from his right. By sending him to Turtle Bay, Netanyahu neutralized him as a force inside Likud and silenced his criticisms of Netanyahu’s policies, while playing to the attractiveness of a high-profile diplomatic appointment and the fantasy that an Israeli UN ambassador can follow in Netanyahu’s own footsteps and use that position as a springboard to the premiership.
By appointing Erdan, Netanyahu removes him from the Israeli political scene for the time being. In making him the ambassador in waiting to Washington as well, Netanyahu may have had a sneakier motive than just crafting an offer that would be even harder for Erdan to turn down. Under the coalition deal with Gantz, Netanyahu’s UN ambassador remains in place after the November 2021 handover, but Gantz gets to choose a new ambassador to the U.S. when he becomes prime minister. By giving Erdan the Washington role as well, Netanyahu makes it more difficult – though certainly not impossible – for Gantz to replace Erdan, as he will still be serving at the UN and will argue that taking away some of his existing responsibilities is unnecessary and even counterproductive.
Following Erdan’s appointment, Gideon Sa’ar made public that Netanyahu had offered him the combined U.S.-UN ambassadorships first, and that he had turned them down. Sa’ar has long seemed to take a more cynical approach to Netanyahu, so his rejection of an offer of gilded exile is not surprising. Even less surprising is that Netanyahu then froze him out of the cabinet entirely despite Sa’ar’s position as fifth on the Likud list. Sa’ar was the only Likud MK to actually step forward and challenge Netanyahu’s leadership during the string of repeat elections, and as David Simon so memorably taught us, if you come at the king you best not miss. Despite Sa’ar’s popularity with Likud voters and his previous ministerial experience, there was no chance that Netanyahu was going to hand him a ministry; if anything, those factors actually weighed against him. Netanyahu’s explanation that priority for new cabinet ministries was given to current cabinet incumbents was designed as an excuse to justify keeping Sa’ar out.
While Sa’ar was the highest profile snub, the one who is likely the most disappointed is Nir Barkat. Barkat finished in the first group of ten in the Likud primary, is considered to be someone in Netanyahu’s mold – polished orator, projects strength and confidence on security, makes use of his good English and connections abroad – and was Netanyahu’s finance minister-designate before the third election. Barkat has made no secret of his ambition to succeed Netanyahu, but has been just as transparent in his support of Netanyahu so as not to be seen as disloyal or give Netanyahu a reason to target him. Nevertheless, Barkat finds himself outside the cabinet. If Netanyahu were looking to position Likud for success after his own tenure, Barkat would have a high-profile role in this government. Instead, Barkat was treated as a threat to be neutralized, not an asset to be utilized.
The exception to the sidelining of Likud’s future stars is Yisrael Katz, who has been serving as foreign minister and now takes over as finance minister. Of this group, Katz is the one who has been the most loyal to Netanyahu and served as the Likud campaign manager for the last election, and also the one who is the least threatening in terms of his charisma and political skills. But even Katz’s reward is not necessarily what it seems at first glance. The finance ministry is challenging under the best of circumstances – look at how far Moshe Kahlon’s star fell in the past few years under a much-lauded Israeli economy. Katz will now be in charge of rescuing and reinvigorating Israel’s finances from the deep pit of coronavirus. No matter how objectively successful he is, Israel is in for a painful few years ahead, and Katz is now set up to be a convenient scapegoat for any unpopular decisions or outcomes.
When all of this is combined with leaving Yamina out of the government – depriving Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked of ministries but also delaying any possibility of them coming back to Likud in preparation for future prime ministerial runs – it points to Netanyahu behaving as he always has, and not like a politician preparing for his swan song. Netanyahu has been uniquely effective at sidelining rivals, weakening challengers, and ensuring that he and he alone is seen as capable of leading Likud. The new government conforms to this historical pattern. Even appointing Miri Regev as the next Likud foreign minister beginning in November 2021 – someone with no relevant experience, including English, and who is the most undiplomatic cabinet minister in memory but is also Netanyahu’s most over the top and unwavering loyalist – is a signal of how Netanyahu views his own political future. Anyone looking at November 17, 2021 as Netanyahu’s expiration date might want to check with Netanyahu himself first.