There was nothing new to be learned from the result of the Likud primary Thursday night; it only confirmed everything we always knew: Benjamin Netanyahu is a brilliantly ruthless and indefatigable campaigner who even when victory is ensured will leverage every procedural advantage and squeeze every emotional hold he has on his supporters. Likud long ago ceased to be an ideological movement and transformed itself into the Bibi party.
Under the circumstances, 27.5 percent of the vote should be seen as a decent result for Gideon Sa’ar. He knew his chances were slim and privately hoped to cross the psychologically important 30 percent threshold.
But as has happened in so many elections, Netanyahu worked much harder than his rival. The footage of him phoning up individual voters and even sorting out babysitters so they could go out and vote for him wasn’t just for show. That’s Netanyahu’s mindset – he fights for every vote. At age 70, and after so many elections, he hasn’t changed or lost any of that burning desire.
And Likudniks voted for him because they sensed that the fight was still in him, that he still had that fire that a much younger challenger could never kindle.
Sa’ar’s people urged party members, as they went into the polling centers, that “a vote for Netanyahu is a vote for the next opposition leader. A vote for Sa’ar is for the next prime minister.” But they failed to convince. Netanyahu has proved he can win against the odds, and Likudniks were prepared to give him another roll of the dice.
Netanyahu knew he was fighting for that crucial 30 percent. If Sa’ar had won it, the narrative would have been that there’s a significant camp in Likud calling for Bibi’s removal.
So he went all out and denied his challenger. He fought the primary just as he fought this year’s two general elections, with everything he had. He crisscrossed Israel for two weeks, holding three or four events every evening. He harangued and begged and wheedled every Likudnik.
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This failed to deliver him a majority among the general public in April and September, but in Likud it still works. A full 41,792 Likudniks came out for him on a stormy Hanukkah day – almost four times the number who came out for Sa’ar.
The only question now is whether that 41,792 is representative of a much wider section of the public. In September, many Likudniks stayed at home, and some even voted Kahol Lavan. They couldn’t or wouldn’t vote for a party led by Netanyahu. Those 41,792 Likudniks voted for Netanyahu because they believe he can still convince the stay-at-home Likudniks to go out and vote on March 2.
Likud is sticking by Netanyahu because it still believes he can win, as do the other parties of the right wing and the ultra-Orthodox community, with the exception of Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu. They’re pinning their hopes on him extending his winning streak in nine weeks.
If next week, as expected, Netanyahu requests parliamentary immunity from his indictments for bribery, fraud and breach of trust, every last illusion will have been stripped away. Netanyahu will have positioned himself, Likud and its partner parties against the entire system.
And he’s aware that this may not help him in the election. He knows that a majority of Israelis want to see him leave, that the binary choice he’s now presenting them could force even more of them to stay home or vote for Benny Gantz’s Kahol Lavan in March.
But he’s willing to take that gamble because he’s always looking two steps ahead, and he knows that the likeliest result of the next election is something pretty similar to the previous one, with neither him nor Gantz having a clear path to a majority coalition in the Knesset.
Netanyahu survived the last three months thanks to his bloc of 55 MKs, none of whom, including Sa’ar and his tiny band of supporters, wavered. Even if this eases to 54 or 53 in March, that bloc will still almost certainly be sufficient to prevent an alternative government that isn’t reliant on the votes of the Arab-dominated Joint List. Netanyahu believes that the result in Likud has cemented the bloc for another round.
His strategy hasn’t changed. He’s clinging to the prime minister’s office with the power to appoint new ministers. Even though Israel has had an interim government for a year now, half the ministers were appointed this year, their loyalty ensured. Even if his bloc is weakened, he will continue after the election to refuse to let Gantz go first as prime minister in a national-unity government. Why should he if there isn’t a coalition with a majority to remove him?
Netanyahu’s strategy since his return to office in 2009 has always been to hold his coalition tight; not to try to widen it, but to solidify the base. It doesn’t matter if it’s a minority. As long as it holds fast, it can beat a larger but disunited opposition.
In the last three months, he proved that 55 out of 120 MKs were enough for that. Now he’s banking on 41,792 Likudniks being enough. And to judge by the miserable situation on the center-left, he may be right.