After failing to form a government twice in two tries, then being hit with a bribery charge, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s long rule over Israel appeared set to expire.
But in his first real test since his indictment last month in three corruption cases, Netanyahu crushed a lone rival Thursday for the leadership of his conservative Likud party and, like a political phoenix, rose to fight another day.
“I received a renewed and huge mandate from the Likud yesterday,” he said in a victory speech Friday, hours after the final tally was in. “The future is in our hands.”
With his landslide victory in the Likud party primary election, Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister and a famed political survivor, has reasserted his grip over the party despite his legal troubles, fired up his base and reinvigorated his campaign ahead of the next general election in early March.
The election will be the third in a year, an unprecedented situation as a deeply polarised Israel struggles to form a government after inconclusive elections in April and September.
The questions many Israelis were asking Friday were whether die-hard Netanyahu fans who came out to vote for him on a wet, blustery day reflect wider support on the Israeli right, whether Netanyahu can maintain his fresh momentum for another two months, and whether anything could jolt a hung electorate out of its political logjam.
“The primary injected enthusiasm and got the Likud machine working,” said Gayil Talshir, a political scientist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “But can that buzz be maintained over months? I’m not sure.”
Netanyahu trounced his party rival, Gideon Saar, winning 72.5% of the vote. Still, just under half the 116,000 eligible dues-paying Likud members cast ballots, meaning that about 41,000 Netanyahu adherents — a tiny fraction of the total Israeli electorate of about 6.4 million voters — may have locked the country into another round of political paralysis.
The previous two elections ended in a draw between Netanyahu’s right-wing-religious coalition and the center-left bloc led by Benny Gantz, a centrist former army chief, with neither able to form a majority coalition. Recent polls before the Likud primary showed Netanyahu’s support softening after his indictment but not enough to change the unforgiving math that has paralysed the Israeli government for the past year.
Moderate conservatives concerned about upholding the rule of law may find it difficult to vote for Netanyahu, Talshir said, noting that in more educated, well-heeled districts like north Tel Aviv, Saar made a strong showing.
The one likely outcome of Netanyahu’s new lease on political life is that the March 2 election will again be ugly and divisive, analysts said. It will pit the “Only Bibi” camp of supporters, who lovingly call Netanyahu by his nickname, attack the law enforcement authorities and try to delegitimise any opposition, against the other Israel that cannot accept the idea of a prime minister facing prosecution for serious crimes.
Gantz, the leader of the centrist Blue and White party, made it clear Friday that he will once again run as the “not Bibi” candidate.
“It appears that the defendant Netanyahu, who is leading the state of Israel down a path of corruption, will continue to lead Likud,” Gantz said in response to the primary results. “These elections demand that we place a mirror in front of the ‘Netanyahu party’ and make the choice for unity, dignity and internal reconciliation,” he added.
But with the same protagonists running again on the same issues, and with recent polls showing a similar deadlock, there is little expectation of a fundamental shake-up by the March election.
“The people who don’t like Netanyahu still won’t like him,” said Israel Bachar, a strategist for the Blue and White campaign, dismissing any notion that the primary result could have a wider impact. “It won’t change the polling data.”
What the primary did do is remove any doubt about Netanyahu’s hold over his party and his ministers, Bachar said, “and that’s a good change for him.” While Netanyahu focuses on his legal issues, he added, Gantz will focus on values.
Netanyahu is accused of trading official favours worth hundreds of millions of dollars to Israeli media moguls for illicit gifts of cigars, Champagne and jewelry, as well as positive news coverage. He has denied any wrongdoing, casting himself as the victim of a witch hunt by a left-wing elite that he says dominates the news media and has pressed the law enforcement authorities to pursue criminal investigations against him.
For his loyalists, the primary triumph clears a possible path ahead for Netanyahu. Miki Zohar, Likud’s chief whip in Parliament, said on television that the result is basically telling Netanyahu that his Likud voters want him to request parliamentary immunity from prosecution.
Netanyahu has a few days left before the deadline for submitting such a request, though it would likely only be voted on if and when a new government is formed after the election. Approval would depend on Netanyahu’s being able to muster a majority of 61 in the 120-seat Parliament.