Trial by primary: 6 things to know for November 25
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Trial by primary: 6 things to know for November 25

Netanyahu agrees to battle Sa’ar for the leadership of Likud, but few give the upstart much of a chance, instead predicting the PM will fight to the (political) death

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and then education minister Gideon Sa'ar light candles to celebrate the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah during the Bible Quiz at the International Conference Center in Jerusalem, on December 12, 2012. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and then education minister Gideon Sa'ar light candles to celebrate the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah during the Bible Quiz at the International Conference Center in Jerusalem, on December 12, 2012. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

1. I accept your challenge: The Likud party has agreed to hold a leadership contest, allowing Gideon Sa’ar and other potential challengers to battle Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for the reins of the party.

  • The decision comes after intense pressure, from within and without, following the attorney general’s announcement that he will indict Netanyahu, and the premier’s struggles to form a governing coalition.
  • Tabloid Yedioth Ahronoth portrays Netanyahu as waging “a battle on two fronts” after he “tried to broadcast business as usual from the northern border… but was forced by Sa’ar to focus on internal politics at home.”
  • A day after being left off Israel Hayom’s front page, Netanyahu’s mug is back front and center in the paper, alongside the three men who graced its A1 on Sunday: Sa’ar, Likud MK Nir Barkat and New Right leader Naftali Bennett (who for a time was seen as the next horse the paper would back). “Succession battles in Likud have reached a boiling point, and are becoming especially personal,” the paper declares.
  • The succession battle in Israel Hayom, however, appears to have already been decided in favor of Barkat, a popular former Jerusalem mayor. The paper’s coverage of the primaries spills most of its ink on a back-and-forth between Barkat and Sa’ar over the push for primaries, essentially casting Barkat as the Likud leader’s defender.
  • The paper’s Mati Tuchfeld also goes after Sa’ar with full gusto, writing that “What people will mostly remember from all this was his disloyalty in the moment of truth. Until now, the rivalry with Netanyahu generally benefited Sa’ar, perhaps even amplified his status. The question is whether he crossed the line and will lose prestige from this point forward.”

2. Not a chance: According to Channel 13, Netanyahu sent Sa’ar a message advising him to check the word on the street before challenging him to a duel — pointing to his 80 percent approval rating.

  • The channel reports, though, that Likud director general Zuri Siso has spent the last year purging those who don’t back Netanyahu from the party’s rolls, without subjecting the moves to a hearing, as is supposed to be done.
  • In Haaretz, columnist Ravit Hecht claims that the contest will only help Netanyahu, since Likud members will rush to rally around their embattled leader.
  • “Anti-Netanyahu people — and there were always some — may now have more legitimacy and are suffering less from being attacked aggressively on WhatsApp. But the Likud street is still with Netanyahu.”
  • Army Radio notes that cracks in that support may be starting to form. The head of the party’s Ashdod branch tells the station that anyone who votes for Netanyahu in a leadership contest is making a dumb choice but adds “that’s democracy.”
  • And Channel 12’s Daphna Liel also gives him a fighting chance, noting that even Moshe Feiglin got about 30 percent when he went up against Netanyahu.
  • Sa’ar’s big advantage, she writes “is being the only one who has kept his eyes on the legal reality and is acting as though the day after Netanyahu is already here.”

3. Where’s the Sa’ar camp? Sa’ar may have some allies, but they have been silent and aren’t winning many accolades for it.

  • Channel 13’s Sefi Ovadia reports that most of them are afraid of being punished by Likud voters the next time there is a general primary if they go after the prime minister.
  • In Yedioth, columnist Nahum Barnea writes that Sa’ar is isolated, as Likud lawmakers Israel Katz, Gilad Erdan, Yuli Edelstein and others “choose to stand to the side and hope for a miracle.”
  • ToI editor David Horovitz writes: “What has been dismally, crucially missing from the increasingly heated public discourse in the days since Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit announced on Thursday that he would be charging Netanyahu with fraud and breach of trust in the three corruption cases against him, and bribery in one of them, are the warning voices of leaders who share Netanyahu’s political philosophy, who generally admire him, and who do not seek his job.”

4. Your weeks or mine: Sa’ar is also generally seen as having lost when it comes to the timing of the vote, having pushed for it to be held in 14 days, which would have allowed him to take the reins and likely try his hand at forming a government before new elections are called.

  • According to Channel 12 news, while the premier “didn’t rule out” agreeing to Sa’ar’s call to hold the leadership contest in the 17 days remaining to avoid general elections, the scenario was seen as unlikely,
  • Instead, most news outlets report that Likud is likely leaning toward only holding the leadership contest in some six weeks, much too late to keep the polls closed.
  • Walla’s Tal Shalev explains why Netanyahu is so keen to make sure the contest is held only after new elections are called: “Even as his opponents have started to think about his end, Netanyahu still has one serious trick that can ensure him a few more months on the throne: elections.”
  • Meanwhile, Haaretz’s Anshel Pfeffer explains why Sa’ar was so keen to take control now and what he could offer them if they call the poll lickety-split. “Sa’ar is nowhere near as popular as Netanyahu among Likudniks right now. But Netanyahu can only offer them a few more months of a lame duck interim government, one that can’t take any major steps, spend money or make appointments as it limps toward another election (which he is extremely unlikely to win). Sa’ar offers them a good chance of remaining in power and avoiding another election.”

5. Stay a while: According to Kan, AG Avichai Mandelblit is expected to make clear that Netanyahu can continue in his role until he is convicted and all appeals are exhausted with a legal opinion as early as this week.

  • On Facebook, Channel 13’s Nadav Eyal writes that Netanyahu backers who have spent the last years going after Mandelblit and the courts suddenly care a whole lot about the letter of the law, despite the fact that ministers who are indicted have always stepped down.
  • Eyal claims that Netanyahu and his allies are pushing the talking point that he doesn’t have to step down, and his foot soldiers on the street are threatening the court. “This is a coordinated and planned campaign, a set part of what Netanyahu is doing in the political arena.”
  • Laying it on thick, in Israel Hayom’s op-ed page Simcha Rothman writes that the most important question isn’t whether Netanyahu can continue to lead but rather “if Israel is a country of laws, or if the role of judicial experts, in the Justice Ministry, in universities, in think tanks and the High Court, is to rule over the dumb populace and keep it from realizing its democratic destiny.”

6. Long way down: The betting site Ladbrokes is offering 7/5 odds that Netanyahu is the next major world leader to quit or be ousted (slightly edging out the UK’s Boris Johnson as most likely).

  • But pundits don’t see Netanyahu going down without a fight to the death, or the political equivalent.
  • “He is still fighting, and although there are preliminary signs in Likud that some are beginning to pull away, Netanyahu hasn’t had the last word yet,” political scientist Gidi Rahat tells Bloomberg. “He is fighting for his life and to him, nothing else matters.”
  • Aaron David Miller writes in CNN that any legal effort to oust him will take time, noting that Ehud Olmert’s legal proceedings took seven years to play out. And Netanyahu won’t spend that time watching the hourglass run down.
  • “If anyone thought that Netanyahu would use his speech to the nation following news of the indictments to put country over party and go quietly into the night, they don’t know Netanyahu. I have known him since the 1980s and nothing is more important to him than his political ambitions, his desire to cling to power and his own sense of indispensability tethered in his own mind to the well-being and security of Israel and the Jewish people.”
  • Haaretz’s Chemi Shalev also envisions are a horrific slide into the abyss: “Aided and abetted by his spineless partners, Netanyahu is entrenching himself, going to the mattresses, gearing for a long siege, pledging to fight until his last breath or until Israeli democracy collapses onto itself and capitulates to his every whim. Instead of a dignified exit or at least a time-out in which he could try to prove his self-proclaimed innocence, Netanyahu will have to be dragged kicking and screaming from his sanctuary in the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem.”
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