After last week’s Likud primary, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is still No. 1 on the party list for Knesset in April’s election. No surprise there, as his ranking was already determined. But the next few places, coupled with the findings of national opinion polls, are early indications of who’s rising in Israel’s legacy right-wing party.

The standout is former Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar, who came in fourth after weathering a campaign against him by Netanyahu. Sa’ar, who left politics for four years, was No. 2 in the last election. His strong showing last week, despite Netanyahu’s accusations that he was trying to take over the leadership of the party, further solidifies his position as the most likely candidate to succeed Netanyahu one day.

Likud primary voters chose Knesset Speaker and former refusenik Yuli Edelstein as No. 2, followed by Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz, Sa’ar and Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, rounding out the top 5.

The overall results were seen as a rebuke to Netanyahu by party voters. And nationwide, polls of the entire electorate found that Sa’ar is the Likud politician they’d most like to see as prime minister, after Netanyahu. All of this is, of course, just background noise — unless Netanyahu is indicted in the corruption scandals swirling around him.

And none of this will change the complexion of the Likud leadership, which is overwhelmingly male, Ashkenazi and wealthy. While it is true that the person in sixth place, Culture Minister Miri Regev, is a woman and Mizrachi, as is Social Equality Minister Gila Gamliel, in the 10th slot, the fact remains that  the party, which polls predict will win 30 to 34 seats in the election, isn’t offering voters a slate that looks like them. Of the first 20 candidates, just three are women.

Since its inception, Likud has touted itself as the voice of the working class (read: Mizrachi) opposing the Ashkenazi elite in the Tel Aviv bubble. The Likud list raises serious questions about that claim. Indeed, according to Michal Aharoni in Israel Hayom: “The Likud’s Knesset list is elitist, white and rich, and has nothing to do with the values it professes to represent.” 

Through this all, Netanyahu remains the enormously popular draw who connects with his voters despite the vast gulf between them. This is so because he has achieved unprecedented electoral success, and has moved the government further to the right — a move that satisfies the electorate irrespective of economic status or ethnic lineage.  

But Netanyahu’s long reign and dominance over Likud comes at a price. His continuing presence leaves little oxygen for rising stars in the party, and begs the question whether after Netanyahu, Likud will follow the once mighty Labor Party into a slow, painful decline.

For now, however, the stage is set for a Likud victory in April, with the only question being who will join the new governing coalition? JN

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