Sa’ar vs Netanyahu: A bubble has burst, but a political earthquake looks remote
AnalysisBoth sides will claim a 70-30 win for Netanyahu as a triumph

Sa’ar vs Netanyahu: A bubble has burst, but a political earthquake looks remote

5 things to watch as the pretender takes on the veteran in Thursday’s Likud leadership content, the first serious challenge to the PM from within his party in 14 years

Raoul Wootliff

Raoul Wootliff is the The Times of Israel's political correspondent.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Likud MK Gideon Sa'ar, right. (Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Likud MK Gideon Sa'ar, right. (Flash90)

One of the (many) arguments against Israel going to third elections in less than a year was that the campaigns and ultimately the results would be almost identical to the two previous rounds, wasting yet more time and money, but likely just extending the political deadlock that put us all here in the first place.

If Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu loses Thursday’s Likud leadership primary, however, in which he faces off against Likud pretender Gidon Sa’ar in his first real challenge from within the party in 14 years, everything would certainly change.

It would be no less than a political earthquake, spelling an end to the premiership of Israel’s longest serving prime minister, and completely shaking up the March election.

If, on the other hand, Netanyahu wins, as is strongly expected, he will consolidate his control over the ruling party, removing yet another obstacle to his continued rule, amid multiple threats both political and legal.

Whatever the result, the race is significant. Here are five ways that Sa’ar vs. Netanyahu — what has happened so far and what could happen — may affect the ruling party, as well as the wider political arena:

1. What is a win?

Sa’ar is seen as having little chance of beating Netanyahu, even if he does pose the greatest challenge to the premier from within his own party in years.

Neither side has released internal polls, but sources from both camps say they are expecting an emphatic victory for the prime minister. The only report of internal polling, mentioned by Channel 12 as an unsourced side note two weeks ago, said that 75 percent of the some 115,000 Likud members supported Netanyahu, to just 25% for Sa’ar.

Sa’ar allies are now suggesting that gaining 30% of the vote could still be considered a success. “No one has got close to that before, and we are talking about the incumbent prime minister,” a source close to Sa’ar told The Times of Israel this week, tempering expectations. (Now-Israeli Ambassador to the UN Danny Danon scored 19% to Netanyahu’s 75% in the last contest, in 2014).

Likud party member Gideon Sa’ar launches his campaign for the upcoming primaries for the Likud chairman, ahead of the Knesset elections, in Or Yehuda, on December 16, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Some in the Likud have suggested that Sa’ar only entered the race to build his profile, never expecting to really win it. Winning more than 30% of the vote, even without beating Netanyahu, may well do that.

For the prime minister, simply winning may not be enough; he needs to win big. A Likud party source likewise noted a 70-30 split as a possible target.

A closer result would not necessarily deliver a decisive message to his Likud party that Netanyahu’s leadership cannot be challenged. A sign of weakness within the Likud might also have a ripple effect with the wider electorate, which is set to vote in just over two months’ time.

2. First blood

Sa’ar’s candidacy has undoubtedly caused a split within Likud, which had for years been regarded as entirely, unequivocally united behind Netanyahu.

Sa’ar’s bid has drawn support from a number of influential Likud mayors, including from the party’s rightist pro-settlement wing. Several key Likud groups have also pledged support for him.

Social Affairs Minister Haim Katz attends a Labor and Welfare committee meeting in the Knesset, June 8, 2015. (Alster/FLASh90/File)

Within the parliamentary party, however, just five lawmakers have publicly endorsed Sa’ar, with the vast majority backing Netanyahu. One of those five, MK Haim Katz, is a former minister who controls the party’s central committee, and holds sway over Likud voters from Israel Aerospace Industries, having helmed its powerful workers union for more than 20 years.

On Wednesday, party heavyweight Gilad Erdan finally announced that he would be supporting Netanyahu, leaving only Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein mum, as of this writing, on who he is backing.

Even if Sa’ar is trounced by Netanyahu on Thursday, the bubble of Netanyahu’s undisputed rule within the Likud has certainly burst. It may not mark a return to the days of fierce personal and ideological battles between powerful rival camps within the party. And Netanyahu will hail any decisive victory as proof that Likud remains firmly with him — 14 years after he defeated Silvan Shalom to regain the party leadership following Ariel Sharon’s departure to form Kadima. But the age of near-unanimous Likud backing for the prime minister is over.

3. What indictment?

Netanyahu can nonetheless take some comfort in the tone and the nature of the specific criticisms being voiced against him by Sa’ar and his allies.

The leadership race comes after Netanyahu failed in two consecutive attempts to form a government and was charged in a series of corruption cases, denting his reputation as “the magician” of Israeli politics.

Yet Sa’ar has repeatedly stressed that Netanyahu has been a good prime minister and should be able to continue as long as the law allows him. Rather than attacking the premier over his legal troubles or raising a moral question over his continued leadership under indictment, the challenger has instead advanced ballot box arguments to support his campaign: If he heads the Likud, Sa’ar argues, he would succeed where the premier has failed — in assembling a coalition and boosting the overall strength of right-wing and religious parties.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at an event opening the Brazilian Trade and Investment Promotion Agency in Jerusalem, December 15, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Speaking to The Times of Israel earlier this month, Sa’ar said the need for a new Likud leader, and indeed a new prime minister, does not stem from the indictments, but “because the country is simply stuck. It has been stuck for a year… We are paying a heavy economic price, the citizens of Israel are paying a heavy price.”

The furthest he went in addressing the fact that Netanyahu has been charged for bribery, for example, was stating this week, in an interview with Kan public radio, that “some voters say Netanyahu’s indictment affects their desire to vote for Likud.”

For Netanyahu, Sa’ar’s candidacy may have highlighted that the prime minister is not infallible, but it has not yet signaled any rebellion within his own party over the fact that he is set to face criminal trial.

4. Right swing

In addition to targeting Netanyahu for failing to form a government, Sa’ar appeared to be trying to outflank Netanyahu from the right, criticizing the premier for not carrying out the court-approved demolition of a Bedouin village in the West Bank, urging increased construction in areas around Jerusalem, and describing the two-state solution as an “illusion.”

Likud MK Gideon Sa’ar visits in the West Bank area known as E1, near the settlement of Ma’ale Adumim, on December 10, 2019. (Hadas Parush/ Flash90)

Touring Jerusalem neighborhoods situated across the Green Line last week, Sa’ar called for an end to the “construction freeze” there and in the E1 area near Jerusalem, suggesting Netanyahu’s vows to build have been empty ones.

“The future of Jerusalem will be decided through actions, not words,” Sa’ar said in an obvious jab at Netanyahu’s pre-election pledges to annex the Jordan Valley and apply Israeli sovereignty to West Bank settlements.

In response, Netanyahu has also turned right, vowing to allow further construction in the West Bank and repeating his promises regarding the Jordan Valley.

5. A new Netanyahu?

The acrimony between Sa’ar and Netanyahu began long before the primary was set just two weeks ago. Netanyahu had previously claimed publicly that Sa’ar intended to “steal” the premiership from him, and actively campaigned against him in the primary for the party slate leading up to April’s election.

As a result, many Netanyahu supporters within the Likud have turned on Sa’ar. Earlier this month, he was booed at a gathering of the Likud Central Election Committee, and hecklers interrupted his speech with cries of “Bibi, Bibi” — the prime minister’s nickname.

His candidacy has also been criticized by Netanyahu allies as disloyal and destabilizing to the party at a time when unity is required after two inconclusive elections and the announcement of the charges against the prime minister.

But despite claims by Sa’ar of intimidation by Netanyahu supporters and even claims of impropriety, publicly the prime minister has taken a different tone in this internal party election than he did against his Blue and White rivals in the April and September general elections.

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a rally in his support in Jerusalem, on December 22, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Netanyahu has fully embraced the primary campaign trail, appearing, remarkably, at as many as six parlor events a day, where he has presented an upbeat message playing up his record as prime minister. All this, rather than filming Facebook Lives video from his Balfour Street residence trashing Sa’ar — as was his habit when battling Blue and White leader Benny Gantz.

Could the race against Sa’ar, and the adoration he has received from Likud supporters on the trail, show Netanyahu the benefits of a positive campaign in March, rather than the constant flow of negative campaigning seen in the previous two deadlocked national elections?

The next day may decide.

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