Analysis

Netanyahu Isn't Really Afraid of Likud Rival Sa'ar. So Why the Big Guns?

Netanyahu got used to Likud as his footstool, and hates the notion of other centers of power in politics besides himself

Benjamin Netanyahu / Gideon Sa'ar
Ariel Schalit/AP, Moti Milrod

What is it that truly bothers Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about Gideon Sa’ar? What’s driving him crazy? What is leading him, once again, to pull up from the bottom of the garbage can the “plot of the century,” which has already decomposed and fermented, and wave around its remains in front of the 118,000 members of Likud who will vote Tuesday on the Likud ticket for the next Knesset?

Netanyahu knows that the likelihood of President Reuven Rivlin ignoring the will of the people and giving Sa’ar the task of forming the next government is almost nil. Rivlin is statesmanlike, democratic, fair. These are character traits that the prime minister does not know well, and in fact scorns.

The thought that Sa’ar will promote a scenario that doesn’t have the slightest feasibility is so baseless that not one of the Likud MKs and ministers, including those most faithful to the leader, now stands behind it. This is, after all, a bunch who doesn’t hesitate to falsely accuse an attorney general and a police commissioner of the most serious infractions.

>> Tuesday’s Likud primary is the first act in palace coup against Netanyahu ■ For Likud primary campaign, pledging loyalty to Netanyahu is paramount ■ Haaretz poll: Half of Israelis don't want Netanyahu reelected

This option does not exist. So what is it? When Sa’ar was education minister, he expressed opinions opposed to Netanyahu’s. For example, he stopped Netanyahu from closing down the public Educational Television station. In the following term, Sa’ar helped Rivlin become president. After that he took time out and now he is about to return to the Knesset at a time set to be very sensitive for the prime minister. Netanyahu doesn’t want him there.

Netanyahu and Sa'ar at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center in 2013
Miriam Tzachi

He's invested Herculean efforts in blocking Sa’ar’s way to the top in Likud. As opposed to David Levy, Yitzhak Mordechai, Dan Meridor, Roni Milo, Moshe Kahlon, Naftali Bennett, Ayelet Shaked and others, who simply had enough it and fled for their lives from Likud, it drives Netanyahu crazy that Sa’ar stayed in the movement.

In the Sa’ar-less Knesset term ending now, Netanyahu got used to Likud as his footstool. His governing of the party is democratic-totalitarian. Everybody bends, to some extent or other, to his whims and obsessions. He can’t stand that there are other centers of power besides him in politics or the state; whether the media, the president, the police commissioner or the attorney general.

And so the upcoming return of Sa’ar to Likud – apparently likely to occupy one of the first 10 slots on the ticket – is a worrisome prospect for Netanyahu, without even mentioning the process of receiving a mandate to become prime minister. And so he has been dealing solely with this for the past few days. Because he always knows how to separate the wheat from the chaff.

The results of the primary will be in early Wednesday morning, if there are no mishaps. The following are vying for the first five slots, the heart’s desire of the ministers, in alphabetical order: Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein and ministers Gilad Erdan (first place in the previous primary), Yisrael Katz, Yariv Levin, Miri Regev. Except for stroking the ego, it doesn’t really matter. Netanyahu doesn't have to appoint his ministers according to their place on the ticket, as he has already proven quite a few times.

Let's see how well you're keeping up with Israel election news

The three new candidates: Immigration Absorption Minister Yoav Gallant, a Kulanu refugee, former Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat and the old-new Sa’ar, will certainly be elected on the national slate, pushing out sitting MKs. It will be interesting to see where the following find themselves on the roster, if they do: MKs Oren Hazan, the ugly face of Likud; David Amsalem, the man who claims to read two books a week, none of which seem to say that the word autistic is not a pejorative; David Bitan, who is suspected of bribery, and David Shiran, one of the suspects in the submarine purchase affair.