JERUSALEM - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Thursday won a resounding victory over Likud challenger Gideon Saar, winning more than 72% of the vote. The vote gives Netanyahu a boost going into Israel’s third general election in a year, scheduled for early March.
“This is a huge victory! Thank you Likud members for your trust, support and love,” Netanyahu said in a message to supporters, vowing to lead Likud “to a great victory in the upcoming [national] elections and continue to lead the State of Israel to unprecedented achievements.”
Saar called Netanyahu to concede defeat and said he would continue to support Likud in the coming election campaign. Saar’s supporters had said that if he reached 30% of the vote, it would be a big victory. He fell short, but not my much.
“The contest was vital to the Likud and its democratic character,” said Saar. “My decision to run was right and necessary. Whoever isn’t prepared to take a chance for the path he believes in, will never win.”
Saar was seen as the first serious challenger to Netanyahu in the 10 years that he has led the ruling Likud party. Netanyahu also recently became Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, overtaking the first prime minister, David Ben Gurion. The overwhelming victory seemed to show that the fact that Netanyahu has been indicted in three corruption cases has not dampened his Likud support.
In the last two election campaigns, Netanyahu has run a campaign in the style of U.S. President Donald Trump, denigrating the media and the justice system as making up “fake-news” allegations against him. He described investigations against him as ridiculous, repeating “there will be nothing (no indictment) because there is nothing.”
Since the November indictment, he has continued to insist he is innocent, and most analysts say it is Netanyahu who dragged Israel into an unprecedented third election in a year because he wants to gain strength before trying to get immunity.
“All Netanyahu is concerned about is his personal interest – it’s why we went through elections in April and September, and why we are going to a third election,” Gayil Talshir, a political science professor at Hebrew University said in an interview. “He needs 61 hands in the Knesset (the parliament) to vote for immunity for him. He needs each and every one of the right-wing members of the Knesset.”
In the past two elections, neither Netanyahu nor his former army chief Benny Gantz, who started a new party called Blue and White, was able to put together a coalition of 61 seats. Gantz had said he would not join a national unity coalition with Netanyahu at the head, although he is open to another Likud leader.
During negotiations after the September election, Netanyahu offered to step down after six months, but Gantz reportedly did not trust him to keep his promise.
Latest polls show that Blue and White has gained some strength but that neither Likud nor Blue and White can form a coalition. Netanyahu is also hoping that the next election will strengthen some of the right-wing parties who would be his natural coalition partners.
According to the Israeli electoral system, a party needs a minimum of four seats to enter the Knesset. The law was passed to prevent small one- and two-seat parties from entering the Knesset. In last April’s election, the Jewish Home party of Defense Minister Naftali Bennet and former Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked fell just 1,500 votes short of the threshold number. For Netanyahu, it was four potential seats lost to the right wing.
Beyond strengthening his own base, Netanyahu hopes to encourage right-wing voters to come out and vote. In the Likud party primary, just under 50% of registered Likud voters came out, partly because of stormy weather. Netanyahu is worried that the third election in a year has left the Israeli public, which traditionally has high rates of voting, apathetic and voter turnout will decrease.
Although Netanyahu trounced Gideon Saar, the fact that anyone was willing to challenge Netanyahu may be the first chink in his armor. For the past 10 years, Netanyahu has completely dominated Likud.
It is not yet clear when Netanyahu’s corruption trial will begin. He has insisted that he can both be prime minister and defend himself in court at the same time.