Analysis |

Israel Election Results: In Netanyahu's Party, Assassins Never Get to Sit on the Throne

Gideon Sa'ar is gunning for the top spot in Likud - and the premiership. But can he do it in a party where loyalty is the key to succession?

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Netanyahu and Gideon Sa'ar in 2013
Netanyahu and Gideon Sa'ar in 2013Credit: Nir Kafri
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

Gideon Sa’ar knows one thing. In Likud, assassins never get to sit on the throne. No Likud leader has ever been deposed by the party, and when they did eventually resign, the successors were those who showed fealty to their predecessors. The ambitious Benjamin Netanyahu captured the party leadership in 1993 at the age of 43, only after Yitzhak Shamir resigned and Netanyahu first offered to run his mentor Moshe Arens’ leadership campaign. Only after Arens decided not to compete did Netanyahu enter the fray.

Everyone knows what Sa’ar thinks of Netanyahu. The prime minister and his autocratic ways were the reason Sa’ar took a break from politics in 2015. But Sa'ar has not breathed a word of criticism in public, not then and not after his return two years ago. No matter how hard Netanyahu tried to ruin Sa'ar's chances in February's Likud slate primaries, and no matter how outlandish the stories the prime minister put out about Sa'ar's plotting against him, Sa’ar remained silent. The most he was prepared to say was that Netanyahu is “mistaken.” But only because “he’s human, too.”

>> Read more: Netanyahu isn't really afraid of Likud rival Sa'ar. So why the big guns? | Analysis ■ With a sword at his throat, third election is no big deal for Netanyahu | Opinion

Sa’ar returned to politics because he wants to be Likud’s next leader and prime minister. To do that, he is positioning himself as a frontrunner in the succession stakes, but he won’t be tainted as the man who brought down Netanyahu. On Thursday, when the Likud spokesman put out a statement that Netanyahu is “considering” a snap party leadership primary, Sa’ar made do with the cryptic tweet “I’m ready.” Later, when journalists quizzed him in the Knesset, he refused to elaborate.

As leadership challenges go, this was the most tepid and inoffensive possible. Nothing about Likud’s need for new leadership. Just two blank words. And this is the most serious challenge Netanyahu has faced in five years. In 2014, he beat the hapless Danny Danon with a landslide 81 percent of the party membership vote. In 2016, no one even put their candidacy forward. Since then, Likud hasn’t even bothered holding another primary.

“Gideon knows that Bibi will win if a primary is held,” said one of Sa’ar’s supporters. “But he wants to make it clear that he is the leader for the succession. So he’s putting himself out there without actually attacking Bibi.”

Sa’ar knows that even after Netanyahu leaves, he will do everything he can to designate his successor and, out of vindictiveness, order his diehard supporters to vote for anyone but Sa’ar. Sa'ar's calculation, however, is that once Netanyahu is gone, his influence will diminish. If he manages to avoid getting bloodied in the process, he believes that enough Likudniks will vote for whoever they think is most electable. But only once Netanyahu is gone.

He doesn’t want to go head-to-head with Netanyahu. He knows it will be a dirty fight, in which his hands will be tied while the mud is slung at him. Sa’ar is betting that Netanyahu will be too paranoid to actually go through with an unnecessary primary and that his statement Thursday was just a diversion to deflect attention from his pre-trial hearing. If that is the case, those two words on Twitter were all Sa'ar needed to mark his place as the likeliest successor, without incurring too much of Netanyahu’s wrath.

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