Analysis

Is Netanyahu Finally Facing a Full-scale Likud Rebellion?

So far, lawmaker Gideon Sa’ar is the only heavy hitter to call for an immediate primary. Netanyahu’s problems will start when others join the call

From left: Likud members David Amsalem, Gideon Sa'ar, Amir Ohana and Nir Barkat at the Knesset, July 22, 2019
Emil Salman

Likud lawmaker Gideon Sa’ar has been back in frontline politics for more than two years — after taking a break before the 2015 Knesset election — and until now he’s not been in any hurry to unseat Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He has been biding his time, like everyone else in Likud, waiting for Netanyahu’s eventual departure. He said last month that when a leadership primary is held, he’ll contest it. But he wasn’t pushing for it to be held just yet.

Then, though, he said Thursday that if a new election is held next March, he’d demand that Likud hold a primary before it. And then, on Saturday, he went on television and said that, following the corruption indictment against Netanyahu, a primary must be held immediately.

Why the sudden rush? Netanyahu is on his last legs anyway, so why take on his hordes of supporters in Likud when they are at their most angry?

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Sa’ar knows full well that Likud never deposed its leader in its entire history. That’s going back not only to 1973, when Likud was founded as a political grouping, but to the very birth of the Zionist-Revisionist movement in 1923. Never was there a movement so loyal. So what makes Sa’ar think it would be in his political interest to position himself at the head of a pointless rebellion?

One of Sa’ar’s closest advisers said a couple of weeks ago that “Gideon knows he’ll almost certainly lose to Bibi, but he’s positioning himself as the main alternative on the day after.” But running in the leadership primary is not the same as calling for one to be held immediately, as Sa’ar is doing now. That’s even assuming he can get the necessary votes — two-thirds of Likud Central Committee members — to hold a primary at such short notice.

As of last Thursday, not only is Israel led for the first time by a prime minister under indictment. It is also the first time following an election that two separate candidates failed to form a government. Israel is in the final 21-day period in which a government can be formed, after which another election — the third in 12 months — has to be held by law. Sa’ar believes that this combination of precedents gives him a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

The key line in his television interview Saturday was when he said, “I haven’t heard one person who thinks that after a third election, or a fourth, or a fifth, or a sixth, Prime Minister Netanyahu will succeed in forming a government. There are two possibilities: This crazy situation in which the country has been stuck for a year; or, God forbid, power passing to our political rivals — and we’re not far from that.”

Sa’ar was speaking directly to Likud members and their fear of losing the power they have enjoyed for almost 11 years.

Every Likudnik harbors that fear. The Revisionist Movement’s founder, Zeev Jabotinsky, memorably wrote: “God, you chose us to rule.” It took his heir, Menachem Begin, nearly three decades to fulfill that promise after the founding of the state. But since 1977, Likud has spent three-quarters of its time in office. And that is the main reason Likudniks have stuck by Netanyahu. Because he won elections. He isn’t any longer, though, even before that indictment for bribery, fraud and breach of trust.

Netanyahu and Gideon Sa'ar in the Likud campaign headquarters in 2013
Nir Kafri

Sa’ar is telling them what they already know: That after failing to win the two wasted elections of 2019, Netanyahu’s chances of ever winning again have decreased dramatically. And certainly not if a third election is held in March, as now seems all but inevitable.

But the urgency in Sa’ar’s message on Saturday is because he doesn’t want to run as Likud leader in an election in four months’ time. He wants to become leader before the December 11 deadline so he can form a government — because neither Avigdor Lieberman nor Benny Gantz will refuse to join a Likud-led national unity government once Likud is led by someone not called Benjamin Netanyahu.

Sa’ar is nowhere near as popular as Netanyahu among Likudniks right now. But Netanyahu can only offer them a few more months of a lame duck interim government, one that can’t take any major steps, spend money or make appointments as it limps toward another election (which he is extremely unlikely to win). Sa’ar offers them a good chance of remaining in power and avoiding another election. Everyone knows he is also close to former Likudniks in Kahol Lavan like Zvi Hauser and Yoaz Hendel, who only left the party because of Netanyahu. Sa’ar brings with him the promise of splitting the new centrist rival that threatens Likud’s primacy.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with wife Sara and Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein at a ceremony near the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, April 2019.
Emil Salman

It is a gamble by Sa’ar. His chances of beating Netanyahu in a snap primary are at best even, probably lower. Also, he may not be the only contender. One or more of the party’s other aspiring leaders, Yisrael Katz or Gilad Erdan — who have so far remained silent — or Nir Barkat, who has proposed a double primary for leader and deputy leader — a formula he hopes will allow Likudniks to feel they can stick with Netanyahu while already anointing his successor — may decide to jump in if Sa’ar successfully forces a primary. Or they may decide that it’s better to remain on the sidelines, and let Sa’ar get slimed and shredded by the formidable Netanyahu machine and its hordes of media proxies and online trolls. And then step in only after Netanyahu’s inevitable departure.

It will be a full-blown Likud rebellion if another of the heavy hitters joins in demanding an immediate primary, and it’s hard to see how Netanyahu can survive for long in that scenario. They won’t all run and split their chances. In such a case, they will probably reach an agreement on fielding a consensus candidate — probably Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein. He could replace Netanyahu and serve as Likud leader and perhaps also prime minister for a year, until the 2021 presidential election in which he plans to run. Then, with Netanyahu already long departed and deep in his trial, a real Likud primary could take place.

Netanyahu’s best bet is to fight the demand for an immediate primary, but allow it to take place after December 11 when a March election is unavoidable. In that case, many Likudniks may make the calculation that Sa’ar probably won’t do better among the general public and they may as well stick with Bibi and let him decide the timing of his departure.

Either way, the die is now cast. Whether it’s Sa’ar’s lone challenge or a wider insurrection, Likud is starting to turn on its leader.