Analysis

If You Come for King Bibi, You Better Not Miss (By More Than 30 Percent)

Though Netanyahu’s victory over Gideon Sa’ar in the Likud primary is all but assured, it is still a crucial election for determining Israel’s next prime minister

Gideon Sa'ar, left, announcing his primary campaign in Or Yehuda, December 16, and Benjamin Netanyahu at a conference of his right-wing bloc in Tel Aviv, November 2019.
Daniel Bar-On / Nir Elias, Reuters

Benjamin Netanyahu will be reelected as Likud leader in next week’s party primary. Almost certainly. Even Gideon Sa’ar’s closest advisers and supporters admit that.

Despite all that has transpired recently, Netanyahu remains very popular with members within the party – because of what has transpired historically. And though it has become a cliché, it remains the rule of any Likud election that the party has never forced a leader out. It will be a huge surprise if Netanyahu becomes the exception to that rule next Thursday.

Even the Likud members who would like to see him depart politics sooner rather than later – and their number is not inconsiderable – do not want to see him depart at the hands of his own party members. There are also others in Likud who will be voting for Netanyahu simply because they want someone other than Sa’ar to replace him.

So why is Sa’ar, a canny and cautious politician, running in a race he knows he will almost certainly lose? Netanyahu is on his way out anyway, so why incur the wrath of his fanatic loyalists by challenging him now? Surely it would make more sense to run when the incumbent has left the field? And why, if his victory is all but assured, is Netanyahu exerting himself, fixing the date of the primary, attending three rallies each night and using his control of the party apparatus to strike off the membership rolls thousands of Likudniks who are suspected of insufficient loyalty to the leader?

Sa’ar is running because he knows that even after Netanyahu is finally forced from office, he will still run in the next leadership election. Bibi will not make the same mistake he made in 1999, when he resigned immediately after losing the direct premiership election to relinquish control of the party. That mistake cost him seven years until he was Likud leader again, and a full decade before he returned to the prime minister’s office.

Netanyahu’s influence on the party may diminish once he is no longer prime minister and leader, but he will still have tens of thousands of supporters and will try to motivate them to vote for a convenient placeholder – and against any candidate he views as having been disloyal or too independent. Sa’ar is top of his hit list. He will be running against Netanyahu even if Bibi is not officially running next time, so has nothing to lose by running now.

There is also an advantage for Sa’ar in running now even though he will likely lose: It could allow him to secure the status of “front-runner.” After all, Sa’ar is not more obviously popular than the other leading candidates to replace Netanyahu. He only came fourth in the most recent Likud primary, trailing behind Yuli Edelstein, Yisrael Katz and Gilad Erdan. In recent polls for the Likud leadership, former Jerusalem mayor and current lawmaker Nir Barkat is in pole position.

In other words, with Netanyahu gone, Sa’ar is just one of at least five potential leaders – and the one that Netanyahu’s loyalists will be gunning for. By running next week, he has a chance to consolidate the votes of Likudniks who want Netanyahu to leave now.

Sa’ar is gambling that there are currently enough Likudniks opposed to Netanyahu to give him a respectful showing. If he is right and wins at least a third of the votes, he will have proven that he can win significant support against the all-powerful leader. He will have bolstered his position as the successor and future prime minister. If he pushes toward or even exceeds 40 percent of the vote, he will cement it. Anything below 30 percent, though, will be seen as a failure. Sa’ar will run again in the post-Bibi primary, but just be one of the pack.

Netanyahu is not only anxious to prevent Sa’ar’s emergence as next Likud leader (rather than having a “caretaker” to keep his seat warm). He knows that anything less than 70 percent of the vote will be seen as a weakening of his leadership. If Netanyahu wins but receives less than two-thirds of the vote, it will not be seen as an endorsement, but rather as the Likud membership’s desire to allow him a respectable departure.

Anything short of a landslide will mean that on the morning after the next general election on March 2, unless he achieves a total turnaround in Likud’s fortunes, gains more votes than Kahol Lavan and has a majority for his governing coalition parties, the deals to form a national unity government with Kahol Lavan leader Benny Gantz will be made behind his back.

Whatever the outcome of the Likud primary, Netanyahu will remain prime minister for another three months, until after the election. Only a new government led by a new premier can replace him. But a strong showing for Sa’ar among the Likud membership will dramatically weaken Netanyahu’s standing, and make it much more likely that Sa’ar will replace him in the not-too-distant future as Likud leader and prime minister.