As Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s power within his own Likud party has slipped in recent years, observers have been increasingly wondering whether he has any future left in the party. It’s certainly true that he’s lost control over the internal machinations of the Likud. But some, like Michael Koplow, Mazal Mualem, and most strongly Liam Hoare have also argued that his future in the party is limited, while the only way for him to move on the peace front is to pull an Ariel Sharon and break away from Likud to form his own party.
Anything is possible. But I’m not so sure Bibi is that interested in leaving the Likud, even if he’s serious about making progress on peace talks with the Palestinians. Nor is it clear that he’d be able to consolidate a strong enough party to engage with the Palestinians for an extended period of time and with real results.
The historical pattern in Israel suggests that two conditions are necessary in order for politicians to form a successful breakaway party: On the personal level, there is the need for a combination of a powerful will and determination, and great charisma; on the political level there must be a strong base of support outside the party. It is not clear that Bibi meets either of these conditions.
There have been four successful breakaways from the larger parties in Israeli history. By “successful” I mean having achieved a significant number of seats in the following election. Policy change hasn’t always resulted, though, and in only one case has the new party demonstrated any staying power. Otherwise, all “third parties”—those formed as a centrist party between Labor and Likud—fail.
In 1965 David Ben-Gurion, for all intents and purposes the founder of the state, led a breakaway group from Mapai to form Rafi. He took several rising stars with him (including Shimon Peres, and Moshe Dayan). The party won 10 seats in the 1965 election. By 1968—before the next poll—it merged with two other parties to form Labor.
In 1984 Rabbi Ovadia Yosef engineered the formation of Shas to represent the interests of Sephardi haredim as a breakaway from the Ashkenazi-dominated Agudat Israel. It steadily increased its share of the vote, reaching a high of 17 seats in 1999. Though it’s since dropped to 11 mandates, it remains a powerful force in Israeli politics—the only breakaway party to do so.
Promoted as a new centrist party, Third Way was created in 1996 out of Labor, led by the somewhat popular Avigdor Kahalani. It won four seats that year and was invited into the government. It failed to win any seats in the next election.
The best known example of a breakaway party is Kadima. Ariel Sharon peeled off from Likud in 2005 in order to complete his plan for withdrawal from parts of the West Bank, which the Likud was opposed to even then. It won an unprecedented (for a third party) 29 seats in 2006, 28 in 2009, and—without a popular leader at its head any longer—a paltry two in 2013.
Netanyahu has become, in his second and third terms, extremely cautious. Breaking away from Likud is a huge gamble for him, one which he knows might not provide any payoffs. He lacks the determination that drove Ben-Gurion, Sharon, and the others. Bibi also doesn’t have the base of support that they had. Ben-Gurion was the founder of the state, Sharon was popular among the right for his support of settlements and could also grab votes from the left for his new support for withdrawal. Yosef had the large community of Sephardim to draw on. Outside of Likud, Bibi is at best mistrusted, at worst disliked.
At the same time, it’s not clear that Bibi’s framework for thinking about his party is the peace process. I’ve argued before that Bibi is an opportunist who can be pushed into negotiations. He also knows Likud politics is more about internal jostling for power than anything else. The party’s peace process spoilers (led by Danny Danon) have since the internal elections stated their desire to work with Netanyahu for the good of the party. They understand that they won’t be able to win any elections without him. In return Bibi has apparently promised not to push for a merger with Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu, which the party activists were adamantly opposed to. This suggests Bibi’s willingness to work within the system rather than leave it.
Given this, if Bibi does leave Likud he’d likely be dooming himself to an immediate political decline. He doesn’t want to go out that way; it’s not clear he wants to go out at all at this point. Put another way, staying in Likud seems to be his best chance of remaining in power. Despite losing control over party institutions—which he didn’t try to maintain anyway—Bibi doesn’t face any serious challenges to his leadership from within the party. The only real challenger for the prime ministership outside Likud is Yair Lapid from Yesh Atid, and it’s far too early to say with confidence whether Lapid can hold on to that position.
In short, Bibi and Likud need each other more than they don’t—and both know it.