Analysis

Likud Members Prove to Netanyahu: We're Not a Flock of Sheep

The voters didn’t agree to the prime minister's war against Gideon Sa'ar. Nor did they heed Netanyahu regarding their other candidates

Likud primaries, February 5, 2019.
Tomer Appelbaum

Likud loyalists proved on Tuesday to Benjamin Netanyahu that there’s a limit to everything. They put a check on his caprices. True, he is their leader, he is dear to them, he routinely leads them to power, and they are grateful for all that. They let him reserve three spots on the electoral list and they would have given him a fourth.

However, they are not a flock of sheep that scares every time a herding dog barks and rushes submissively to the corral. They have a sense of responsibility. They possess collective wisdom and they have a measure of independence that doesn’t characterize the party leadership in the Knesset and in the government.

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Likud list (final results)

Gideon Sa’ar’s case stood out but it is not unique. Sa’ar emerged from the primary strengthened in three ways. Publicly, he was signaled by Netanyahu, who pursued him without any reason, as the crown prince, and as the leading candidate for the day after. Within the party, he placed in the top five after spending four years outside the system. Among the leadership, he will join the 21st Knesset as someone who survived the inferno, strengthened by Knesset members who are close to him and a kind of faction head with Minister Haim Katz; their alliance made the most of it. If Netanyahu feared a Katz-Sa’ar faction within the leadership, that’s exactly what he got.

The spokesman for the Likud’s campaign headquarters, Erez Tadmor, provided the ultimate proof of the mood in Netanyahu’s office in the wake of the stinging defeat regarding Sa’ar on Wednesday. “Everything is fine,” he calmly said during a television interview when asked what conclusion he drew from the affair. “We’ve seen it before. There was Begin-Tamir, Shamir-Peres, Peres-Rabin, Shamir-Levy.” He unwittingly placed Sa’ar in a position of leadership he himself would not dare attribute to himself. Tadmor will pay for this indiscretion.

Netanyahu, who relaunched his war against Sa’ar three days before the primary on Likud TV, sought to push the prodigal son down below the 10th spot. With Sa’ar stuck between Tzachi Hanegbi and Ofir Akunis, Netanyahu could say that Sa’ar is passé, that his time has passed, an invention of the leftist press.

The voters didn’t agree. Nor did they heed Netanyahu regarding their other candidates. All his endorsements in the various districts lost to their rivals, among them Sa’ar and Katz loyalists like Michal Shir and Eti Atiya. Some Netanyahu recommendations, be it by the father or the son, were soundly defeated, finishing third or fourth in their individual races.

Moreover, the politicians most closely identified with the prime minster, his sworn defenders who sacrificed themselves for him and humiliated themselves in the press were pushed to the list’s margins. They include the David duo of Bitan and Amsalem, Amir Ohana, whom Netanyahu went out of his way to back, ministers Hanegbi and Okunis, and Nava Boker and Miki Zohar. In his next term, when the final indictment will be a matter of when and not if, these ladies and gentlemen will have to evaluate their relationship with him. Perhaps it doesn’t pay to be ingratiating.

Miri Regev managed to get enough votes to make it to the top five (after Netanyahu), but it was a loss for her. She did better in 2015, when she was just an MK (backed by Sa’ar), not a minister symbolizing the government. Her mobile soapbox, the calls and the cheap, uncouth last-minute gimmicks (“The New Likud is taking over Likud like the Sudanese took over Tel Aviv”) didn’t fetch her first or second place, as she’d hoped. Again, voter wisdom prevailed. They love her, they take selfies with her, they kiss her, but they are very, very careful with their ballot.

The full article will appear in Friday’s paper.