Shaking Off Likud's 'Netanyahu Forever' Mindset

The party's reluctance to jettison an incumbent prime minister means that even an aging politician is retained beyond his political sell-by date.

Amiel Ungar
Amiel Ungar
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and then-Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar at a cabinet meeting in December 2012.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and then-Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar at a cabinet meeting in December 2012.Credit: Alex Kolomoisky
Amiel Ungar
Amiel Ungar

When Interior Minister Gideon Sa'ar explained that his time out from politics was motivated by 'family reasons,' it still held greater plausibility than the convoluted political calculations supplied by the punditocracy.

Their standard explanation was that Sa'ar found himself between a rock and a hard place. Benjamin Netanyahu was blocking Sa'ar's political advancement, and the two had collided when Sa'ar helped steer Reuven Rivlin's presidential candidacy through the Knesset, much to Netanyahu's displeasure. On the other hand, if Sa'ar would have decided to challenge Netanyahu directly, in a Likud primary, he would have been courting defeat, knowing that Likud never turns out an incumbent prime minister. Sa'ar therefore took the prudent course of waiting till Netanyahu had called it quits, rather than be tainted as a loser or with the image of a spoiler.

If that analysis is indeed accurate, then Sa'ar is not the astute politician that he was made out to be. First of all, the idea that losing to Netanyahu in a Likud primary is the equivalent of a fatal wipeout computer error is ludicrous: Sa'ar could have realized this by simply scanning Netanyahu's own career. Israel's prime minister, that presumed electoral asset, was drubbed in national elections by both Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert in 1999 and 2006 respectively, and he lost a Likud primary to Ariel Sharon.

Secondly, Netanyahu twice became prime minister only after squandering a big lead in the closing weeks of the campaign. In 2009, he came out ahead thanks to coalition arithmetic, and in the 2013 he owed his victory to an electoral pact with Avigdor Lieberman. Yes, Netanyahu still distances all comers in the polls in response to the question: Whom do you prefer as prime minister? However, with the possible exception of Yitzhak Herzog, the Labor party chair, nobody else has declared himself a contender for the position. Although such questions favor the sitting prime minister, Netanyahu only gets 37.5%.

Thirdly, opposition in a party primary arena does not presage eternal enmity. Olmert fought Sharon for Likud leadership and then emerged as his key lieutenant and successor. Netanyahu himself has not rewarded his loyalists nor consigned his opponents to political purgatory. In an effort to repair party unity, Netanyahu was willing to pay a great deal both in terms of humble pie and cabinet portfolios to keep one-time challenger David Levy happy.

Had he challenged Netanyahu in a primary, Sa'ar would have been assured of at least a highly respectable showing. Sa'ar's popularity in Likud has been repeatedly demonstrated by his high ranking in the internal primaries ranking Likud Knesset aspirants. He commanded a sizable following - starkly illustrated by his pre Rosh Hashana conclave that far outshone Netanyahu's party gathering (a Likud following that he has - for now - left orphaned).

Netanyahu moreover is vulnerable on numerous issues.

He dodged a Likud Central Committee meeting of his party chaired by critic Danny Danon, where he would have gotten an earful over his handling of Operation Protective Edge in Gaza. While Netanyahu was praised in certain quarters for displaying political prudence during the operation, those complimenting him do not vote Likud or Netanyahu. Anyway it is inescapably clear that, at a time that Israel is wrestling with budget shortfalls caused by the war, we are simultaneously talking in Cairo about Gaza's reconstruction and perhaps even an airport and seaport for the Islamic emirate. Sa'ar - who opposed Netanyahu's exclusion of most ministers from the information and decision-making loop during the fighting - is closer to mainstream Likud sentiment on Gaza.

The same can be said for the issues of illegal immigration and judicial activism that have reasserted themselves in the public consciousness with the recent High Court of Justice decision striking down a Knesset law designed to defend our borders. Sa'ar has fought the tide of illegal immigration that threatens the Jewish character of the State of Israel.

Sa'ar has also attempted to blunt judicial activism by amending the judicial selection process that makes the left's control of the court impervious to Knesset majorities (he, mistakenly, did not go far enough). Ever since his ill-fated attempt to appoint Roni Bar-On to the post of Attorney General, Netanyahu has shied away from confronting the legal establishment. Sa'ar, unlike Netanyahu, has realized the need for correcting the institutional imbalance that is responsible for the paradox of Israel's governance: That although the right can win elections, the left continues to govern via the judiciary.

More than Sa'ar's personal career is at stake. Likud's reluctance to jettison an incumbent prime minister has the flipside that he is retained beyond his political sell-by date. Every politician ages quickly, particularly in the age of intrusive round the clock media. It can happen even to politicians who can claim major achievements, such as Helmut Kohl who reunited Germany. It happened in 1992 when Likud stuck by Yitzhak Shamir and we got Oslo as a result.

Another problem is that the "Netanyahu forever" mind state is also a deterrent to Likud's ideological renewal. Likud has many young MKs who can help fashion an ideological agenda - Tzipi Hotovely, Zeev Elkin, Yariv Levin, Moshe Feiglin and Danon among others. It is important to know what Likud stands for - aside from merely being a surrounding cast for Netanyahu.

Amiel Ungar is a political scientist.

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