Tensions are rising within the Israeli unity coalition over the need to choose between “security and politics,” as war minister Benny Gantz put it today. Gantz’s target was Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who he thinks is turning too much of his attention to the next general election. Gantz is Netanyahu’s expected opponent in that election, but he’s unlikely the source of Netanyahu’s distraction.

The problem is that Netanyahu has a challenger for his Likud party’s leadership, and that challenger isn’t in the war council and therefore has been using the “politics truce” between Netanyahu and Gantz to get a head start campaigning against Netanyahu. It was only a matter of time before Netanyahu’s attention turned to his rearview mirror, in which Nir Barkat’s smiling face was staring right back at him.

Barkat is the current economy minister, having been elected to the Knesset as a member of Likud after a decade as the mayor of Jerusalem. He has not been particularly coy about his political ambitions. “I won’t support Netanyahu again,” he told party activists last month. “After the war, we must turn to the people and get their trust anew. Likud needs change.”

The tech millionaire has previously signaled that he’d wait until after Netanyahu leaves politics to vie for Likud’s leadership, but Oct. 7 and resulting war have scuttled that timeline: “I’m acting in accordance with an agenda, and it is nearing completion.”

Netanyahu’s hold on the party leadership is heading into its 19th year. In the past, the most realistic way to challenge him was from outside the Likud party—the first non-Bibi prime minister Israel has had since 2009 came in 2021, when former Likudnik Naftali Bennett was elected with an anti-Netanyahu coalition. To challenge Bibi from within, Barkat will almost certainly have to run to Netanyahu’s right. And the war has given him an opening to do just that.

At a New Year’s Eve cabinet meeting, Barkat assailed the disruptions in the war caused by regular delivery of aid to Gaza: “This morning, 133 hostages are still being held in Gaza by Hamas. While they are there, the State of Israel is continuing to transfer goods and fuel into Hamas’s hands.

“Israel is fighting Hamas with one hand, and with the other is sending hundreds of trucks every day which extend Hamas’s life and enable it to continue fighting our soldiers. This is absurd. This must stop today.”

Barkat has also made the rounds on U.S. networks, seeking to raise his profile. He is a mainstream figure and thus his criticism of Netanyahu is seen as more of a threat than the barbs coming from Itamar Ben-Gvir and Betzalel Smotrich, two right-wing fringe figures, neither of whom is part of Likud but both of whom are part of the Likud-led governing coalition.

Both Barkat’s national aspirations and his political talent were evident during his mayoralty. Being mayor of Israel’s capital city is a bit like its counterpart in New York: You can be a national figure without having much of a path to national politics beyond your mayoralty. The exception is Ehud Olmert, not exactly a model Barkat will be anxious to follow—and in some ways a model he can’t follow.

Olmert served in the Knesset for two decades before running for mayor, making him a national political figure first and carving out a place for himself in the Likud upper ranks to which he could return. He came back from his terms as mayor, however, a different politician with less of a clear place in Israel’s post-Oslo politics. He began his decade in Jerusalem as a fiery defender of the city’s indivisibility, but after the terror-filled ’90s and then the second intifada, he’d changed his mind. “I realized my term as mayor had come to an end since I couldn’t continue to defend the Jerusalem of which I was mayor,” he once said.

He stuck with Ariel Sharon through the Gaza disengagement and inherited Sharon’s new party and the premiership when a stroke put Arik into a coma. He soon found himself leading Israel through the Second Lebanon War—poorly, according to the public. As his single term as prime minister wound down, he was hit with charges of corruption. He was convicted in 2015 and spent 16 months in prison, the first ex-premier to do so in the country’s history.

The other Jerusalem mayor who’d been a national figure was Olmert’s immediate predecessor, the beloved Teddy Kollek. Kollek managed to stay in the office nearly 30 years, earning the respect of the ultra-Orthodox and the city’s Arab population.

Kollek was also a symbol of the U.S.-Israel connection. His term overlapped with Ed Koch’s mayoralty of New York City, and the two developed a friendship that culminated in a joyfully surreal visit to Jerusalem by Koch in 1985. The New York mayor spoke alongside Kollek at a gathering of ex-New Yorkers who had moved to Israel, and the scene was as if the Borscht Belt had been relocated to the desert. The immigrant couple from farthest away was given 20 New York bagels, and the most recent immigrant won something far more valuable, as the New York Times described it: “She received a hand-delivered letter to New York, a substantial prize given the slowness of the Israeli postal system.”

After the mayors spoke, Koch took questions from the crowd. One woman stood up and insisted she was Koch’s cousin, and then rattled off the names of enough mutual relatives to convince the mayor they were family. Later, at the city’s book fair, Koch ran into the refusenik Yosef Mendelevich, who had a request: “Do you remember you gave me the key to the city? My son broke it. It was made from bad metal.” Koch said he’d replace it.

Five years later Koch was in Jerusalem to encourage American tourists to return to the city. He was hit in the head by a stone thrown by a Palestinian protester; Kollek tracked down the stone and gave it to Koch as a souvenir.

Unlike Kollek, Barkat never became synonymous with the city of Jerusalem (no one did). And unlike Olmert, Barkat came out of his mayoralty as determined a rightist as he went in. Whatever his chances of ousting Netanyahu, Barkat’s open desire to do so has ended Israel’s brief sabbatical from electoral politics.

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