To some, this may be a great consolation, to some a great source of angst, but Benjamin Netanyahu will not be around forever. At the time being, there is no telling now King Bibi’s historic political career will end; perhaps at the hands of Avigdor Lieberman and his proposed bill to bar indicted individuals from the premiership, perhaps at the hands of the Jerusalem courts who are trying him for corruption, or perhaps at Netanyahu’s own hand in the form of retirement or political ascension to the presidency. Whatever it may be, the fact is that each day that passes is one day closer to the end of Netanyahu’s political career, and with Bibi’s notorious habit of sidelining would-be successors, one has to wonder who will be the first to try and fill Netanyahu’s shoes as Likud chairman.
It seems this question is on a lot of minds, as the religious-right publication Arutz Sheva recently published a survey of Likudniks asking the very question, limited specifically to current Likud Knesset members. Out of the 29 Knesset-elected Likudniks whose name does not rhyme with Nenjamin Betanyahu, only two received any significant support; Nir Barakat with 39%, and Yisrael Katz with 14%.
Barakat is a former tech magnate and Jerusalem mayor who, since his election to the Knesset in 2019, has built up a reputation as a Netanyahu loyalist. When he first ran for Jeruslamen’s mayor’s office unsuccessfully in 2003 and then successfully in 2008, Barakat did so as a political independent, endorsed by the Labor Party and individual Likudniks as a moderate secularist in relation to his Haredi opponents. Serving as mayor for a decade, Barakat’s legacy can be best regarded as a mixed bag, having public relations disasters with Formula 1 and Moshe Kachlon that cost the city’s residents, but also presiding over a tech-startup boom in the holy city. Undoubtedly, Barakat’s greatest moment as mayor was in 2015 when he single-handedly subdued a knife-wielding terrorist.
Katz entered the Knesset on the 1996 Likud slate, but broke out during the Sharon administration, helping lead the internal Likud opposition against The Bulldozer and his planned civilian withdrawals from post-1967 territories. Throughout his career, Katz has been an ardent supporter of the settlements, advocating for increased funding and incentives for them on several occasions. Katz, however, has become known internationally for his various headstrong remarks at the expense of other nations and NGOs critical of Israel and/or the Netanyahu administration. Katz is currently third on the Likud slate, preceded only by Netanyahu and Yuli Edelstein, who recently was forced to resign as Knesset Speaker due to corruption allegations.
Despite this poll and these two MK’s, the likelihood either of these men will succeed Netanyahu, outside of interim leadership following a sudden removal of Netanyahu from the political scene. This is true especially if reports from this past winter regarding Bibi’s preferences for a successor are to be believed. According to such reports, Netanyahu is keen on either Mossad chief Yossi Cohen or former Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer to take over Likud in his wake.
Cohen, nicknamed “the model” for his looks, has served as the head of the Mossad since 2015. Modern politics has seen a handful of spy chiefs ascend to high office, George H.W. Bush and Vladamir Putin come to mind. The common struggle for such figures surrounding their ability to relate to the people. A strategically-minded expert in espionage usually must strengthen himself in order to fill the popular demand for leadership and empathy, rather than just policy details and tactical analysis. It does not help that Cohen is not much of a public figure and would need to transform from a shadowy behind-the-scenes player to a public personality over a very short window.
Dermer is an accomplished statesman, serving as Ambassador to the US over the duration of the second half of the Obama administration and the Trump administration. Dermer found himself in the headlines in 2015 when he, together with congressional Republicans, invited Netanyahu to speak at a joint session of Congress in opposition to the Iran Deal, famously behind the back of President Obama. Demer gained media acclaim in 2020 when he oversaw the signage of the Abraham Accords. All in all, Dermer has amassed a reputation as “Bibi’s brain,” Netanyahu’s chief political strategist and hand in American politics.
It seems, however, like Dermer is content in his retirement. If he were to decide otherwise, he, like Cohen, would need to introduce himself to the general Israeli public in a relatively short window of time. Additionally, Dermer, an oleh from America, would seek to be the first oleh prime minister since Yitzhak Shamir left office in 1992. If Dermer were to become the Likud chairman, he would be the third oleh party chair in the Knesset, joining Moldovan-born Avigdor Lieberman and Moroccan-born Aryeh Deri.
Joining these four, there are four dark horse candidates on the Likud slate that may be the next leader of the party. Heading up this list is firebrand Miri Regev, who sits at the fifth slot on the Likud slate. Regev’s reputation as a populist rabble-rouser has emerged during her recent tenure as Minister of Culture, calling for the formal censorship of anti-Israel NGOs and films. Within the party, Regev is regarded as a concerning wildcard who periodically undermines party lines or members without warning, but equally indispensable, due to her perceived importance in garnering the Sephardic/Mizrachi vote. Regev has the best of both worlds, protected by the establishment and justifiably recognized as a populist figure, a formidable infrastructure for a potential bid for party leadership.
Joining Regev as a dark horse candidate for future Likud Leadership is Ambassador to the UK Tzipi Hotoveli. Regarded as the right bookend of the Likud caucus, Regev is an Orthodox woman, her very presence in the party chair likely rendering Yamina and the Religious Zionist Party obsolete. Hotoveli is most famous for her “thieves of history” speech, where she held up a book titled “Palestinian History” on the Knesset floor, only to open the book, revealing blank pages. Hotoveli has spoken extensively on her intentions to apply sovereignty to the Temple Mount, publicly censor the anti-Israel propagandists Breaking the Silence, and fend off Jewish assimilation into secular culture, among other policies and initiatives that would make any rightwinger salivate.
Tzachi Hanegbi, who currently sits at thirteenth on the Likud list, should be considered as a potential Likud leader, albeit it is the most far-fetched out of all the figures I will suggest. Hanegbi, the son of the legendary Geulah Cohen, first entered the Knesset on the 1988 Likud slate following a career at the Shin Bet and Mossad. Abandoning Likud in 2005 to join Sharon’s Kadima, Hanegbi rejoined Likud in 2012 following his acquittal on corruption charges and Kadmina’s quitting of the unity government. Since his return to Likud, Hanegbi has changed his stance on the Gaza pullout, which he supported, now advocating for a re-invasion and resettlement of the Gaza Strip. Hanegbi is an ever-present and trusted figure in Likud politics, even being selected by Netanyahu to act as acting prime minister in 2017 while traveling abroad.
Lastly from the dark horse four is Amir Ohana. If Hotoveli marks the right bookend of Likud, Ohana may mark the left. Ohana, an open homosexual, got his political start as the chair of Likud Pride. Brought into the Knesset as Silvan Shalom’s replacement during the emergence of his sex scandal, Ohana cut his teeth as a leading advocate for the Nation-State Law. In 2019, following statements from Betzalel Smotrich that he would enact “Torah Law” is given the Justice Portfolio, Ohana was handed the portfolio in a rare Netanyahu concession to the media narrative, specifically that Netanyahu was a puppet of the religious parties. Ohana is the star of the historical and persistent nation-liberal minority within Likud, famously walking out on a vote on several LGBT-related bills from the opposition in 2016, unwilling to uphold or contradict the party line at the time.
Finally, there is the outsider pick; Naftali Bennett. It is wholly possible that, in the future, Bennett, a former Likudnik in his own right, will fold his Yamina party into the Likud party as a faction within the party. In fact, this was done in 2019, only for Bennett to pull out his faction in the wake of the formation of the unity government. If given the opportunity to make a play for the Likud chairmanship, using his existing faction as a built-in base, Bennett may take the opportunity.
These nine potential candidates for the next Likud leader can be split into two groups; decidedly right or left of Netanyahu and similar to Netanyahu. If someone from the former, Katz, Regev, Hotoveli, Ohana, or Bennett, ascend to the position, Likud would likely experience a formal split between what has become a larger conservative majority and an increasingly small and isolated liberal minority. If someone from the latter group, consisting of Barakat, Cohen, Dermer, and Hanegbi, were to come to power in Likud, Likud would likely continue to carry on as a united body, for better or worse, with a shrinking and increasingly isolated liberal wing with continued, increasingly disproportional institutional power within the party.