The Sturm und Drang in Likud have evoked a number of fond fantasies among the Israeli left. But these hopes would best be dashed sooner rather than later, to spare the pain of crashing and burning.
Fantasy 1: Gideon Sa’ar, the only leading figure in Likud to stand up against Benjamin Netanyahu, will splinter off with some of his colleagues and forge an alliance with the Kahol Lavan bloc. That isn’t going to happen. It would totally be against the grain in Likud, which is characterized by demonstrative loyalty to the "home." No serious dissidents are going to sprout there.
Sa’ar, a Likudnik in body and soul, has been assiduously cultivating prime ministerial aspirations for years and knows that his only road to that office is through the party. Just ask Moshe Kahlon or Yitzhak Mordechai. They’d probably tell him he’s right.
Fantasy 2: Sa’ar manages to initiate a Likud leadership primary within 21 days, wins the race and leads the party to a unity government. That isn’t going to happen either. The election for chairman – the demand for which arises from the Likud constitution and from the grass roots – is likely to be won by Netanyahu.
Yes, the cases against the prime minister and the indictments that have now been served have had a cumulative negative influence. Not a few Likud voters are sick of the noise the man makes and certainly are sick of his exhausting family. Netanyahu's opponents – and there always were some, even if their numbers were small and their impact embarrassingly feeble – may have gained more legitimacy now, and may suffer less from aggressive attacks in Whatsapp groups.
But the base is still Netanyahu’s. The one thing that irks Likud voters more than anything else is somebody else trying to decide who’s boss, which is how they perceive the political pressures from outside to replace their chairman.
Likudniks do want an election for party leader because they take pride in being a democratic party – unlike Benny Gantz's Kahol Lavan, for instance. They just want to be able to vote freely in favor of Netanyahu’s tyranny (even if they do so in slightly smaller numbers than in the past).
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Gideon Sa’ar going on the warpath is the right thing, morally and democratically, and so was his condemnation of Netanyahu’s talk last week about a coup being launched against him. It was expected that Sa’ar would be joined by Yisrael Katz, Yuli Edelstein and Gilad Erdan, whose opinion of their party's leader isn’t necessarily any better than his. Some Sa’ar cronies called them “pipsqueaks.” There’s something to that.
But Sa’ar is making a political mistake by insisting that a primary be held within 21 days. Many Likud members see that as delivering a kick to Netanyahu – the eternal victim, who just took three blows to the ribs – when he’s down.
“It’s as though Sa’ar were saying: Come on, he’s bleeding now so let’s shoot him,” one veteran Central Committee member puts it. Competing against a leader who failed twice to cobble together a government is akin to murder, no less; indeed, the slime and insults being tossed at Sa’ar in recent days demand a strong stomach.
People who do not vote Likud refuse to grasp the fact that in the short run – and the emphasis here is on “short,” because things will change in the long run – the bigger Netanyahu’s troubles are, the stronger the support for him becomes.
The loathing of the state prosecution and the courts has been a leitmotif in Likud for years, well before the Netanyahu cases were born. That is partly due to the natural tendency of a ruling party to eliminate any threat to its power, and partly the result of pathological feelings of inferiority vis-à-vis anything identified with the elite. Naturally this hatred has grown stronger due to the cases brought against the prime minister, which most Likud voters identify as a leftist attempt to bring down their leader.
People who do not vote Likud don’t understand that the pressure from outside to replace the leader of a movement just makes that outcome less likely. If you have no intention of joining Likud and spending a great many evenings participating in weddings, bar mitzvahs, condolence calls and conferences, then it's better to just sit still. Let them expel him from their bloodstream by themselves.
“I wish Netanyahu would lose the primary and go away already. I can’t take it anymore,” one member of the Likud Central Committee told me. So why not vote for somebody like Gideon Sa’ar right now, I inquired.
“No, no,” he answered. “I won’t be party to a putsch.”