JERUSALEM — Embattled Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu convincingly beat back another political challenge Thursday, winning a clear victory in a primary vote to remain head of the Likud party. The landslide win sends a clear message to Netanyahu’s political rivals that he remains highly popular with his base despite criminal indictments and a failure to twice this year form a government.
The Likud primary comes just two months before Israelis return to the ballot box on March 2 for an unprecedented third general election in less than one year.
After two earlier rounds of voting, Netanyahu and his political rival, former military chief Benny Gantz, were unable to put together a government, leaving the political system in apparent deadlock with no clear solution.
The finally tally in the Likud primary put Netanyahu at 72.5 percent and Gideon Sa’ar, a former government minister who has been at odds with Netanyahu in the past, at 27.5 percent.
“A huge win! Thank you to friends and Likud members for their trust, support and love,” Netanyahu tweeted an hour after the polls closed. “With God and with your help, I will lead the Likud to a big victory in the upcoming elections and continue to lead the State of Israel to unprecedented achievements.”
Sa’ar conceded defeat. “Congratulations to the prime minister on his victory in the primaries,” Sa’ar tweeted. “My colleagues and I will stand behind him in campaigning for the Likud’s success in the general elections.”
Sa’ar had appealed to Likud members by suggesting that if Netanyahu continued as head of the party it would serve as a boost to Gantz’s Blue and White party in the March elections.
“Netanyahu failed twice to form a government, and there is no chance he will succeed after another round of elections either,” Sa’ar told a radio station days before the vote. “I, without a doubt, and we see it also from the polls, can succeed and that is why only a vote for me will ensure another Likud-led government and take the country out of the current political crisis.”
But in a party known for its hearty temperament and fierce loyalty to its leader, it seems that such an argument did not win over enough Likud members. Most of the party’s top leaders closed ranks behind Netanyahu as well.
Surveys taken by local media in recent weeks showed that a Likud led by Netanyahu rather than Sa’ar might win more parliamentary seats. But Sa’ar, the surveys suggested, might be in a stronger position to increase the size of the right-wing bloc because he stood a better chance of attracting coalition partners that had refused to join with Netanyahu in the past.
After the elections in April and September, Netanyahu was stymied in forming a right-wing government after Avigdor Liberman, the hawkish former defense minister, refused to join a coalition that included ultra-Orthodox and other religious parties. Netanyahu also was unable to join forces with Gantz’s Blue and White, which refused to be part of a government with a leader facing criminal indictment.
Last month, the attorney general announced his intention to prosecute Netanyahu in three cases centered on bribery, fraud and breach of trust. This step has added another layer to the political chaos, with many questioning whether a candidate in such a situation can even be permitted to form a government.
“The person who has led us for more than 10 years is unfortunately blocked from forming a government, and unfortunately we need to change the leadership,” said parliament member Michal Shir, a key Sa’ar supporter, ahead of the vote.
Netanyahu supporters, not surprisingly, painted a dramatically different picture.
Former Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat, now a prominent leader in Likud and one of Netanyahu’s main backers, said party members believed Netanyahu was “by far the most promising, experienced and smartest politician in Israel.”
“Everyone wants to see him continue running the country, and when you choose a leader for Likud, then you are choosing a leader for the country,” said Barkat. “He has the best global perspective, the best understanding of international issues, economics and security, far more than Sa’ar.”
He said the third election would produce a decisive outcome. “People in Likud understand now that the future of our country depends on this and they will go out to vote.”
“There are others in Likud who are waiting to succeed Netanyahu when he steps down and they have no reason to crown Sa’ar,” said Aviv Bushinsky, a political commentator and former adviser to Netanyahu.
“The truth is that Netanyahu has already delivered for Likud,” Bushinsky continued. “He brought the Likud and the right wing to power and maintained them there for many years. The people trust him and believe he will be able to deliver again, despite the technical issues.”
The overwhelming victory for Netanyahu in the primary solidifies his position ahead of the March election. Bushinsky said many Likud members believe that it will force his rivals to join him in a Likud-led government, regardless of the indictments and past failures.
“Netanyahu,” Bushinsky said, “has deciphered the DNA of a typical Likud member.”
Rallying furiously across the country over the past two weeks, Netanyahu presented himself as “being hunted by prosecutors and by the media,” said Bushinsky, something Likudniks, who are generally working class or from peripheral areas, can identify with.
Sa’ar is viewed as being embraced by the media, Bushinsky said. His wife, Geula Even-Sa’ar, is a popular media personality, and he briefly worked as a journalist.
Before the primaries, Sa’ar and his supporters pointed to a smear campaign against them. Bushinsky said that while Netanyahu refrained from even referring to Sa’ar by name, the prime minister’s son, Yair, and other allies, accused Sa’ar of being a traitor for breaking ranks with the party before an important election. It is partly this concept that explains Sa’ar’s failure to draw support from top Likud figures.