In Leadership Race, Netanyahu Seeks to Deliver a Message – and a Warning

Meanwhile, there is evident despair in challenger Gideon Sa’ar's camp

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lights a Hanukkah candle at the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem, December 22, 2019
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lights a Hanukkah candle at the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem, December 22, 2019Credit: AFP

The topic most on the minds of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his challenger for the Likud party leadership, Gideon Sa’ar, a day before Thursday’s vote by party members has to be the weather forecast.

The weather has been dry and pleasant in the run-up to Election Day, but the Thursday forecast calls for rain in the north that is likely to spread to the center of the country, along with thunderstorms and strong winds.

Netanyahu doesn’t like uncertainty and his campaign staff is concerned the weather might deter party members from turning out to vote. The prime minister expects to defeat Sa’ar, but he wants a high voter turnout and a victory by a wide margin to send the entire party the deterrent message that he and no one else is the leader of Likud.

The prime minister has been attending four or five events every evening recently, at large venues and in private homes. He even tried to have the vote extended to Sunday, but given the huge expense that this would involve, it was agreed that polling stations would remain open Thursday until 11 P.M. That means that the results of the vote will only be announced early Friday morning.

At the prime minister’s campaign headquarters, they were satisfied with Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan’s announcement on Tuesday in which he called on party members to vote for Netanyahu.

“After taking all of the considerations into account, I have come to the conclusion that Prime Minister Netanyahu is the most suitable person to continue to lead Likud and the country,” Erdan said in a video posted on Facebook. Sa’ar’s candidacy, he added, “was worthy and maintains democracy in the movement. Contrary to some other voices being heard, I am convinced that it strengthens Likud.”

Until Tuesday, Erdan had been sitting on the fence. He didn’t attend any of the dozens of primary campaign events that Netanyahu and Sa’ar held, and the prime minister didn’t expect Erdan to come out in support for either of them. Erdan’s associates explained that they believe Sa’ar will lose in any event, which is why the public security minister decided to support Netanyahu without expecting anything in return.

Despair in Sa’ar’s camp

There is evident despair in Sa’ar’s camp. He didn’t think he would be able to defeat Netanyahu, but now he is concerned that he could receive less than 30 percent of the vote. Sa’ar was also disappointed that Erdan and Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein didn’t support him, which could have given him some momentum.

Sa’ar’s campaign staff has been fighting with the party bureaucracy, whose decisions it sees as undermining their candidate. For example, the chairman of the party’s election committee, retired Judge Menachem Neeman, ruled that Likud members could only vote at the branch where they are registered. Sa’ar views this as unfair. Many of his supporters have been assigned to polling places far from where they live. A Druze family in the north that supports Sa’ar was assigned to a polling place in Jerusalem.

Sa’ar’s last attempt to boost his support was his announcement that he would act to have the Knesset elect Netanyahu as Israel’s president. Sa’ar has realized that some party members have viewed his bid for the Likud leadership as a mark of disrespect for Netanyahu in the prime minister’s hour of need. At a gathering in Netanya this week, Sa’ar explained that as president, Netanyahu could “continue to contribute to the State of Israel’s standing in the world.” Sa’ar may have thought his suggestion would demonstrate that he respects Netanyahu, but based on conversations with several leading party members, it hasn’t seemed to have changed anything.

No primary for the party slate

On Tuesday the Likud party tribunal decided that no primary election would be held for the party’s slate for the March 2 election to the Knesset. In doing so, it adopted the stance of the Likud Central Committee, which the tribunal had initially overturned. But on a second hearing in front of an expanded panel of nine judges, the party’s court reversed course and agreed that the primary for the Knesset slate should not be held. Instead, the party would run the same slate of candidates that it did in September’s inconclusive election to the Knesset.

Over the past few weeks Netanyahu had been pushing to cancel the primary for the slate to protect the spots on the ticket of candidates ranked in lower spots, and to head off their possible defection to other parties.

Two weeks ago the central committee approved Netanyahu’s proposal by a wide margin. Potential candidates for the slate petitioned the tribunal, arguing that the decision violated the party’s constitution. Tuesday’s decision by the expanded panel that there will be no primary to select the party’s Knesset slate could be appealed to a district court.