Analysis

Israel's General Election Will Be a Totally Different Game for Netanyahu

Despite his Likud primary win, any connection between the outside world and the mystical devotion of the party’s members to their leader isn’t loose, it’s nonexistent

A Likud campaign flier that reads 'Netanyahu fights for us. Now we stand by him,' lies on the floor in Kiryat Gat, December 26, 2019.
Ilan Assayag

In December 1998, less than three years after he was elected for the first time, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lost his government. It crumbled in his hands. Former foreign and defense minister Moshe Arens, a senior Likudnik seeking to save his party from certain defeat, challenged the party chairman, who was also his protégé.

The primary was held in January 1999. Despite a series of failures and the wholesale resignation of Netanyahu’s most senior cabinet members (and the firing that month of Yitzhak Mordechai, the most popular minister at the time), the party didn’t reach concrete conclusions regarding Netanyahu. Just as it does today, the “street” burned with love for him. The rallies were electric and standing-room-only. “Bibi King of Israel” was at his best. The results were astonishing: He demolished Arens 82 percent to 18 percent.

Four months later, with this overwhelming support, resounding confidence and alleged renewed mandate, Netanyahu led his party to a resounding double defeat, both in the direct vote for the prime minister against Ehud Barak and in the vote for the Knesset. Likud won just 19 seats – a 60-percent decline.

The only relevant conclusion today, after Netanyahu’s decisive victory over Gideon Sa’ar, is this: What happens in Likud stays in Likud. Any connection between the outside world and the mystical devotion of this party’s members to their leader, despite his political failures and dire legal situation, isn’t loose, it’s nonexistent.

Israelis look at a poster of Netanyahu in Hadera, December 26, 2019.
Ariel Schalit,AP

Likud lost seven or eight Knesset seats between the April and September elections. Around 250,000 voters said enough, we’re fed up. Thursday’s leadership primary won’t bring them back. If anything, it’ll do the opposite. On the part of the “Bibi-ists,” the democratic process was tainted, contaminated, by a methodical campaign of incitement and humiliation against Sa’ar and his few supporters, of a kind never waged before in any party.

Sa’ar went up against not only Netanyahu but also against all of Likud’s cabinet members and most of its Knesset members. Of 32 MKs and ministers, 25 supported the party’s chairman; most of them wholeheartedly, only a few in name only. Some ministers actively opposed Sa’ar because they hope to inherit Netanyahu’s crown and had no interest in seeing anyone else made king. Netanyahu knew this, and they knew he knew; to them he’s only a chess piece, and he has no problem with that.

It’s all transparent. Those are the rules of the game. Sa’ar, who had the public support of only four MKs, went up against a lethal steamroller that flattened him completely. Everywhere he went, he discovered that five ministers had already been there.

By Sa’ar’s initial calculation, he should have won around 35 percent of the vote. The count included the overwhelming support of his friend Haim Katz and the votes of the Israel Aerospace Industries’ employees whose union Katz once headed, as well as those of new Likud members.

Katz let him down. Not only did he not voice support for Sa’ar, it’s now clear he two-timed him. The union membership split its vote, the result of pressure from Netanyahu and the fact that Katz, like Netanyahu, has been charged with fraud and breach of trust and needs immunity from prosecution. Likud’s newest members also split their vote, or simply didn’t vote at all.

Gideon Sa'ar speaks to Haim Katz at a campaign event in Or Yehuda, December 16, 2019.
Daniel Bar On

All this will be forgotten in a day or two. Within two or three weeks, election fever will be upon us once again, and on March 2 the ballot boxes will do the talking. If the right and the ultra-Orthodox parties win 61 Knesset seats – which seems a thoroughly unlikely proposition – and Netanyahu puts together a narrow coalition, he’ll find Sa’ar and his small but loyal camp in a key position.

It will be impossible to ignore them, to humiliate them, to pass them by. Sa’ar has three to five MKs in addition to himself. Yoav Kish, Michal Shir and Sharren Haskel are with him 100 percent; as for Katz, who had been a very close friend, and Atia, it depends on circumstances.

If there’s no decisive winner and yet another election is called, or Likud is thrown into the opposition (as Sa’ar has warned), Likud won’t hold another leadership primary. Netanyahu was elected chairman for the entirety of the Knesset to be voted in on March 2. His goal is to weld Likud to him for years to come, drag the party into court, and possibly into appeals. Thursday’s primary gave him what he wanted.

In his victory speech Friday morning to the entire cabinet and most of the MKs who were invited to Airport City, the vanquisher avoided all mention of the vanquished. The old Netanyahu – the Netanyahu of 1999, for example, who after the primary appointed Arens defense minister in the caretaker government – would have acted a bit more gentlemanly, magnanimous in victory.

The old Netanyahu wasn’t under the total control of his delusions of grandeur, of his own worst instincts and those of his wife.