‘Landslide’ win keeps Benjamin Netanyahu at head of party
Size of victory over rival for leadership of Likud strengthens his position ahead of elections
Jerusalem — Embattled Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared a “huge” victory on Friday, after winning a leadership primary that ensures he will lead his right-wing Likud party into a March general election.
Israel’s longest-serving premier, who faces a corruption indictment and a third general election in 12 months, was expected to beat rival Gideon Saar, but the convincing margin of victory strengthened his position in the party he has dominated for 20 years.
With all votes counted, the Likud announced that Netanyahu had secured 72.5%, with Saar winning 27.5%.
“A huge win! Thank you to Likud members for their trust, support and love,” Netanyahu tweeted. “With God’s and your help, I will lead the Likud to a big victory in the upcoming election and we will continue to lead the State of Israel to unprecedented achievements,” he added.
Most media commentators had predicted a Netanyahu victory but its scale made banner headlines. “Netanyahu, big time,” said Yediot Aharonot, Israel’s top-selling daily. State radio described it as a “landslide” victory for Netanyahu.
The left-wing Haaretz newspaper described it as a battle between the “rational expediency” of Saar supporters and the “tribal loyalty” of the Netanyahu camp.
It noted the reluctance of Likud members to depose a sitting leader. “Since 1948, the Labor Party has replaced its leader 17 times,” it said. “The Likud has had only four leaders since Israel’s inception, and only two since 1995.
“Netanyahu has led the party for the past 14 years consecutively, and for two decades altogether. Younger Likudniks have never known their party without Netanyahu at its helm.”
About 57,000 Likud members voted on Thursday, a little less than 50% of those eligible.
Saar, a former minister seen as to the right of Netanyahu, campaigned on the basis that the leader was no longer able to win elections after deadlocked polls in April and September.
“I am content with my decision to have stood. Those who are unwilling to take a risk for what they believe in will never succeed,” Saar tweeted. “My colleagues and I will stand behind [Netanyahu] in campaigning for the Likud’s success,” he added.
Saar announced his leadership challenge in November after Israel’s attorney-general indicted the prime minister for fraud, bribery and breach of trust. Netanyahu, 70, denies the allegations, accusing the police, prosecutors and the media of a witch hunt.
Stephan Miller, a pollster who has worked on multiple Israeli campaigns, said Netanyahu had campaigned harder than ever before to defeat Saar.
Netanyahu held several campaign events a day in different parts of the country, while on Thursday his Facebook page broadcast live video of him phoning supporters.
In the campaign’s most dramatic moment on Wednesday, Netanyahu was rushed offstage at a rally in the southern port of Ashkelon after a rocket was fired from the nearby Palestinian enclave of Gaza.
“His job was on the line and he fought to keep it successfully,” Miller said.
Netanyahu’s downfall has been predicted repeatedly since he was elected for a second term in 2009, but he has defied expectations and beaten off multiple potential rivals.
He is likely to remain prime minister at least until a new election on March 2.
The Likud and the centrist Blue and White were near neck and neck after polls in March and September, with neither able to form a majority coalition under the country’s system of proportional representation. Early polls indicate that the March 2020 election could again be a stalemate.
In the short term, attention will now turn to Netanyahu’s legal woes. Netanyahu is accused of corruption in three separate cases, ranging from receiving illegal gifts worth thousands of dollars to offering to change regulations in exchange for positive media coverage.
On Tuesday, the supreme court is expected to hold a hearing on whether a prime minister who has been indicted can form a government. Under current understanding of the law, a prime minister is forced to step down only once convicted and with all avenues of appeal exhausted.
Netanyahu also has until January 1 to decide if he will ask parliament for immunity.
Gayil Talshir, a professor of politics at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, said the result could embolden Netanyahu in his campaign against the charges.
“He is going to argue that the people chose him and not the mechanisms and the judiciary,” Talshir said. “The big game for Netanyahu is immunity and for that he needs 61 votes [in the 120-seat parliament],” she said.
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