Ex-education minister hopes to unseat PM in Likud primaries ahead of national elections in March.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu‘s landslide victory in Thursday’s party vote has proven that the Likud will not be giving up on its longtime leader and longest-serving prime minister, analysts have said.
Despite being the first sitting prime minister to be indicted for corruption charges and facing serious setbacks in two general elections less than six months apart, a Likud tally gave Netanyahu 72.5 percent of votes against his challenger, former interior and education minister, Gideon Saar.
“This landslide victory is proof that Netanyahu has no contender within the Likud despite the corruption charges and his failure to form a government twice,” Israeli analyst Mayer Cohen told Al Jazeera.
“The Likud still believes that Netanyahu has huge public support and is the only one capable of leading the party in the upcoming election,” he added.
Saar, who conceded defeat early on Friday, had announced his leadership challenge after Israel’s attorney general indicted Netanyahu in November in three separate criminal cases for fraud, bribery and breach of trust.
Netanyahu also twice failed to form a government following two inconclusive general elections held in April and September this year.
An unprecedented third national ballot will be held on March 2, 2020, after a political deadlock that resulted from Netanyahu’s rival and leader of the Blue and White alliance, Benny Gantz, also failing to form a coalition government.
Base of support
Netanyahu’s success in the vote relates to a strong sense of loyalty within the party and his legacy as a successful prime minister, according to analysts.
“People in the Likud value loyalty. They consider the party a family and no one betrays family,” said Uri Dromi, director general of the Jerusalem Press Club.
Yair Wallach, a senior lecturer in Israeli politics at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, agreed.
“The Likud has never displaced a leader. It’s seen as disloyal to do so,” said Wallach.
“The Israeli public also considers Netanyahu’s reign as success. He is seen as a positive force for Israel both economically and diplomatically as well as from a security perspective. His relatively cautious military approach is considered an advantage [among his supporters],” added Wallach.
But holding onto Netanyahu may pose a serious risk for the Likud in the upcoming election, according to Wallach, who added that “the second election was worse for the Likud than the first, and the third may very well be even worse. It’s therefore a risk for the Likud and the right-wing more generally, to hold onto Netanyahu”.
According to Dromi, many Likud members may consider Saar a traitor for challenging Netanyahu, but the former education minister has now placed himself in a position to potentially replace the party leader in the future.
“Saar is seen as the only one who had the guts to challenge Netanyahu. When Netanyahu is deposed, either politically or judicially, Saar may be the one to replace him,” he explained.
Israel’s High Court said that it will deliberate next week on whether an indicted prime minister can form a government – if Netanyahu wins the election in March.
The High Court has not drawn up an opinion on the matter so far but has called on Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit to publish a legal opinion on the matter ahead of the hearing.
According to Israeli analyst Eli Nissan, Netanyahu’s win in the party primaries might embolden his position in court. “After today’s results, this decision now lies with the public rather than the court,” Nissan told Al Jazeera.
Cohen agreed, saying that “Netanyahu’s right-wing base of supporters have become increasingly convinced that he’s a victim of a politically motivated witch hunt led by the media”.
Netanyahu, who has cast the legal case against him as a political witch hunt orchestrated by the media and an Israeli left hoping to oust him, has been seeking immunity from indictment.
Although earlier this year Netanyahu’s allies supported a draft of a contentious bill aimed at shielding him from prosecution, as well as legislation that would limit the power of Israel’s Supreme Court, the prime minister being granted immunity is not a given.
“If Knesset members who voted for Saar abstain or object to granting Netanyahu immunity, then he’s in trouble and his trial begins,” Dromi told Al Jazeera. “That’s what might make a difference in the third election.”