Despite his Likud primary win, any connection between the outside world and the mystical devotion of the party’s members to their leader isn’t loose, it’s nonexistent.
In December 1998, less than three years after he was elected for the first time, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lost his government. It crumbled in his hands. Former foreign and defense minister Moshe Arens, a senior Likudnik seeking to save his party from certain defeat, challenged the party chairman, who was also his protégé.
The primary was held in January 1999. Despite a series of failures and the wholesale resignation of Netanyahu’s most senior cabinet members (and the firing that month of Yitzhak Mordechai, the most popular minister at the time), the party didn’t reach concrete conclusions regarding Netanyahu. Just as it does today, the “street” burned with love for him. The rallies were electric and standing-room-only. “Bibi King of Israel” was at his best. The results were astonishing: He demolished Arens 82 percent to 18 percent.
Four months later, with this overwhelming support, resounding confidence and alleged renewed mandate, Netanyahu led his party to a resounding double defeat, both in the direct vote for the prime minister against Ehud Barak and in the vote for the Knesset. Likud won just 19 seats – a 60-percent decline.
The only relevant conclusion today, after Netanyahu’s decisive victory over Gideon Sa’ar, is this: What happens in Likud stays in Likud. Any connection between the outside world and the mystical devotion of this party’s members to their leader, despite his political failures and dire legal situation, isn’t loose, it’s nonexistent.
Likud lost seven or eight Knesset seats between the April and September elections. Around 250,000 voters said enough, we’re fed up. Thursday’s leadership primary won’t bring them back. If anything, it’ll do the opposite. On the part of the “Bibi-ists,” the democratic process was tainted, contaminated, by a methodical campaign of incitement and humiliation against Sa’ar and his few supporters, of a kind never waged before in any party.
Sa’ar went up against not only Netanyahu but also against all of Likud’s cabinet members and most of its Knesset members. Of 32 MKs and ministers, 25 supported the party’s chairman; most of them wholeheartedly, only a few in name only. Some ministers actively opposed Sa’ar because they hope to inherit Netanyahu’s crown and had no interest in seeing anyone else made king. Netanyahu knew this, and they knew he knew; to them, he’s only a chess piece, and he has no problem with that.
It’s all transparent. Those are the rules of the game. Sa’ar, who had the public support of only four MKs, went up against a lethal steamroller that flattened him completely. Everywhere he went, he discovered that five ministers had already been there.