The challenger never really had much of a chance. Nevertheless, Benjamin Netanyahu’s crushing victory over Gideon Sa’ar in the Likud leadership contest Thursday constitutes a major practical and psychological boost to the prime minister after his failure to muster a coalition majority in general elections in April and September, and his failure to dissuade the attorney general from filing corruption charges against him.
The wide margin of his victory, though again never really in doubt, also underlines that the overwhelming majority of the Likud’s Knesset faction, its prominent local leaders and activists, and the party machine, remain steadfastly behind him. Fourteen years after he regained the party leadership, and a decade after he returned to the Prime Minister’s Office, “Only Bibi” remains the Likud loyalists’ mantra. He’s a prime minister charged with bribery, and he’s not ruled out a resort to seeking parliamentary immunity in order to stay out of court. But his party stands with him.
Sa’ar put a brave face on defeat, conceding quickly, asserting that the contest had been vital for Likud’s “democratic character,” and promising that he and his supporters would now roll up their sleeves and join forces with the rest of the Likud camp to work for victory in the March 2 general elections.
But a first question that arises following Thursday’s contest is whether Netanyahu and his majority support in Likud will let Sa’ar and the handful of pro-Sa’ar Likud MKs actually do that. Netanyahu, after all, has repeatedly accused Sa’ar of seeking to mount a coup against him, and some Netanyahu supporters have branded Sa’ar and his supporters traitors for daring to challenge the party chairman.
This was a leadership contest that only went ahead because Netanyahu decided it was in his interest. His landslide victory shows that he was right to let it take place. Sa’ar clearly helped him by simultaneously confirming his firm grip on Likud and burnishing the party’s democratic credentials; rival leaders Benny Gantz and Avigdor Liberman et al certainly did not put their leaderships to a vote of their party members.
So Netanyahu can well afford to be magnanimous to his utterly defeated challenger — his former cabinet secretary and close aide — who has made him look so good, and who has now re-pledged his support. But at the same time, Netanyahu will not easily forget Sa’ar’s campaign strategy — depicting the prime minister as a serial loser, who couldn’t ensure a right-wing victory in April and September, and won’t be able to do so in March either. With that “Netanyahu’s a failure” designation fresh in the prime minister’s memory, making up with Sa’ar may be hard to do.
A second key question, with wider significance, is whether Netanyahu’s storming victory in Likud will make a difference to his national electability. He’s duly won the race he only consented to run because he knew victory was in his pocket. But what of the race against Blue and White’s Gantz, the one he’s tried and failed to decisively win twice already? He’s shown that he has the Likud vote locked up. His right-wing / ultra-Orthodox bloc has stuck with him. But his real challenge is to draw votes away from the center.
We’ll find out the answer to that soon enough, of course, but one thing is already clear. At 70, leading a small, much-threatened country, fighting graft charges and well aware of how divisive a figure he is abroad and at home, Netanyahu has lost none of his zest for leadership, for politics, and for campaigning.
He hit the campaign trail with energy and passion in this contest, pressing the flesh, manning the phones, and holding rallies — even when Gaza’s rocket crews attempted to humiliate him.
With general elections barely two months away, one might say that Netanyahu seems reinvigorated and rejuvenated both for the election fight in March and the struggle against those corruption charges. Except that, in essence, they are two sides of the same coin: If he wins in March, he may have the political power to fend off those court cases as well with an immunity bid.
If he loses, of course, even Likud may not again be so forgiving…