Likud’s Netanyahu-Sa'ar Showdown Pits Tribal Loyalty vs. Rational Expediency

The prime minister faces formidable legal and political obstacles, but his fans won’t abandon him in his time of need

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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Netanyahu and Sa'ar
Netanyahu and Sa'ar
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

Polls purporting to gauge internal party primary results in Israel are notoriously unreliable, which is why hardly anyone conducts them anymore. Nonetheless, the near-unanimous consensus is that Benjamin Netanyahu will defeat challenger Gideon Sa'ar in Thursday’s Likud primary. The only question, supposedly, is whether the results will humiliate Sa'ar or empower him for the future.

The conventional wisdom, which no one dares dispute, relies first and foremost on Likud’s historic aversion to deposing its leaders. Since 1948, the Labor Party has replaced its leader 17 times; in the past 24 years alone, since Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination, it has changed leadership a dozen times. Likud has had only four leaders since Israel’s inception, and only two since 1995.

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Netanyahu has led the party for the past 14 years consecutively, and for two decades altogether. Younger Likudniks have never known their party without Netanyahu at its helm. For many, Sa'ar’s challenge is nothing less than usurpation: Likud leaders either leave of their own accord, like Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir, or due to incapacitation, like Ariel Sharon. Only then are their self-styled successors allowed to vie for their leadership post.

The inbred Likud aversion to replacing its leaders is compounded by the circumstances surrounding Thursday’s primary. In the eyes of most Likudniks, deposing Netanyahu in his hour of distress, as he faces criminal indictments, is akin to abandoning a wounded soldier on the battlefield. As most Israelis are taught during their army service, there is no greater moral sin.

Worse, Likudniks know that dethroning Netanyahu under such circumstances would bring joy to their worst enemies, and their list of enemies is long. It includes not only rival political parties but, as Netanyahu has indoctrinated them to believe, the so-called “elites” –especially in the media and, as of late, the justice system. Absolutely nothing upsets Likudniks more than the sights and sounds of their rivals rejoicing; it’s hard to believe they would volunteer to provide a sound reason for their jubilation.

Netanyahu, for his part, is taking nothing for granted. He is plowing Likud branches throughout Israel with unbridled energy, pressing flesh and hugging shoulders, as if this were his first, rather than fifth, primary run. Persistent press reports indicate that the party apparatus, which he controls, has carried out massive purges of voters thought to support Sa'ar. Despite the polls, they too seem to believe that Netanyahu needs all the help he can get.

His cerebral rival, Sa'ar, is finding it hard to emulate Netanyahu’s charisma and emotional appeal. His efforts to enthuse supporters like Netanyahu does have fallen flat. And judging by his hare-brained pledge this week that as prime minister he would support Netanyahu’s election as president – as if such a move were either proper or possible – it’s clear that Sa'ar is feeling the heat and getting frantic.

Netanyahu’s devout fans are portraying Sa'ar as a traitor, a candidate who stuck a knife in the back of the revered leader just when he needed the party’s unanimous support. The irony, of course, is that if the calculations of the 120,000 Likud members who are expected to vote in the primary were strictly rational, rather than deeply emotional, Sa'ar should have been the odds-on favorite to win. Rationality, however, is a characteristic in short supply these days among Likud voters.

Netanyahu’s reelection as leader of Likud and its candidate for prime minister virtually guarantees protracted legal battles that may very well end in the prime minister’s disqualification from trying to form a new government, either by the High Court of Justice or by President Rivlin himself. But even if Netanyahu encounters no formal obstacles, polls indicate that the legal albatross hanging from his neck will drive away less committed Likudniks who reject the prime minister’s insistence that he is the victim of a nefarious plot.

But even if Netanyahu confounds the polls and both Likud and the right-wing bloc remain at their current strength, Netanyahu’s chances of forming a new government will remain slim. The stalemate that prevented Netanyahu from forming a coalition after this year’s two successive elections will continue to stymie him: The centrist Kahol Lavan won’t join a government led by an indicted criminal defendant and would refuse, in any case, to grant him immunity, which is Netanyahu’s main, overarching objective.

Even without immunity, Netanyahu is loath to give up his post. If he is condemned to be tried, he insists on going to court as prime minister rather than as mere mortal. In the five weeks that have passed since Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit announced the decision to indict him, Netanyahu has acted as if the criminal charges against him have no bearing on his right or his ability to carry on as PM. Left with no other choice, Netanyahu will readily plunge Israel into a fourth, fifth or sixth election, as long as he remains at his post.

Sa'ar has no such handicaps. Polls indicate that if he were elected, Likud might lose some seats, but the right-wing bloc would grow. Although he actually stands to the right of Netanyahu on issues of peace and the Palestinians, Sa'ar comes with no legal baggage attached. Kahol Lavan would not object to serving under Sa'ar as prime minister – and vice versa. His election would almost certainly guarantee that Likud remains in power, at best, or enjoys an influential position in a unity government headed by Benny Gantz, at worst.

The party members who will vote in Thursday’s primary, a volatile lot in the best of times, have embraced Netanyahu’s claim that he is the victim of a sinister conspiracy. They are up in arms, gearing for battle and preparing to defend their “King Bibi” no matter what the cost. They are likely to vote en masse for Netanyahu, come what may, rather than take the far more expedient step of deposing and replacing him with Sa'ar.

The moral issue of crowning a prime minister who is being charged with three counts of corruption hasn’t even been raised during the campaign. Sa'ar has repeatedly insisted that his beef with the prime minister isn’t over his alleged misconduct in office but over his inability to form a new government. Thus, what much of Israel, including leading jurists and pundits, view as a cardinal sin that imperils Israeli democracy and the rule of law is, as far as Netanyahu’s Likud is concerned, a mere trifle. Likud members, apparently, feel the same.

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