Knesset member Nir Barkat of the Likud, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s designated pick for the country’s next finance minister, is not among his current loyalists. On the contrary, in October 2019 Barkat published an autobiography titled “Running Long Distance.” He held a festive and expensive book launch event in the surprising presence of the prime minister’s wife, Sara Netanyahu, who came to congratulate him. However, immediately following the launch, a cover story ran in the weekend magazine of the Yedioth Ahronoth daily headlined “I will be Prime Minister after the Netanyahu Era.” Barkat, the wealthiest member of Israel’s Knesset, whose fortune is estimated at 500 million Israeli shekels ($146 million), boasted in the piece of his success as a high-tech entrepreneur and of Jerusalem’s flowering during his 10-year mayoral term from 2008-2018. At the time, Netanyahu’s standing appeared somewhat shaky after he failed twice to form a government, and the Likud was gripped by unrest. A leadership challenge was in the air. Sources close to the Prime Minister’s Residence revealed at the time that the Netanyahus did not like the headline, to put it mildly. Sara Netanyahu felt cheated after having attended a party for the man who views himself as her husband’s successor, and relations cooled. Barkat was added to Balfour Street’s list of suspects.
So what happened two weeks before the March 2 elections to make the prime minister upgrade and embrace that same Barkat? Why did Netanyahu pick him to be his next finance minister, passing over stalwart party loyalists such as ministers Yariv Levin and Miri Regev? It turns out Netanyahu discovered, inter alia through polls, that Barkat enjoys a certain public appeal. For moderate, middle- and high-class right-wing voters who advocate a liberal economy, he projects sophistication. Contrary to claims by some in the Likud, including by Barkat associates, his support is not worth two or three Knesset seats for the party. His potential support is smaller and barely equals even half a seat apparently (some 33,000 votes are needed to obtain a Knesset seat), if at all. So why did Netanyahu do it? The move is part of Netanyahu’s current campaign strategy of picking up even a few thousand potential voters. Netanyahu believes that if he can get out the vote of some of the 250,000 Likud voters whom, he claims, stayed home in the September 2019 elections, he will achieve a 61-seat majority for his right-wing, ultra-Orthodox bloc.