Benjamin Netanyahu will be reelected as Likud leader in next week’s party primary. Almost certainly. Even Gideon Sa’ar’s closest advisers and supporters admit that.
Despite all that has transpired recently, Netanyahu remains very popular with members within the party – because of what has transpired historically. And though it has become a cliché, it remains the rule of any Likud election that the party has never forced a leader out. It will be a huge surprise if Netanyahu becomes the exception to that rule next Thursday.
Even the Likud members who would like to see him depart politics sooner rather than later – and their number is not inconsiderable – do not want to see him depart at the hands of his own party members. There are also others in Likud who will be voting for Netanyahu simply because they want someone other than Sa’ar to replace him.
So why is Sa’ar, a canny and cautious politician, running in a race he knows he will almost certainly lose? Netanyahu is on his way out anyway, so why incur the wrath of his fanatic loyalists by challenging him now? Surely it would make more sense to run when the incumbent has left the field? And why, if his victory is all but assured, is Netanyahu exerting himself, fixing the date of the primary, attending three rallies each night and using his control of the party apparatus to strike off the membership rolls thousands of Likudniks who are suspected of insufficient loyalty to the leader?
Sa’ar is running because he knows that even after Netanyahu is finally forced from office, he will still run in the next leadership election. Bibi will not make the same mistake he made in 1999, when he resigned immediately after losing the direct premiership election to relinquish control of the party. That mistake cost him seven years until he was Likud leader again, and a full decade before he returned to the prime minister’s office.
Netanyahu’s influence on the party may diminish once he is no longer prime minister and leader, but he will still have tens of thousands of supporters and will try to motivate them to vote for a convenient placeholder – and against any candidate he views as having been disloyal or too independent. Sa’ar is top of his hit list. He will be running against Netanyahu even if Bibi is not officially running next time, so has nothing to lose by running now.
There is also an advantage for Sa’ar in running now even though he will likely lose: It could allow him to secure the status of “front-runner.” After all, Sa’ar is not more obviously popular than the other leading candidates to replace Netanyahu. He only came fourth in the most recent Likud primary, trailing behind Yuli Edelstein, Yisrael Katz and Gilad Erdan. In recent polls for the Likud leadership, former Jerusalem mayor and current lawmaker Nir Barkat is in pole position.