JERUSALEM—After weeks of bad news, Thursday was a very good night for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who faced the first serious challenge to his leadership of the Likud party since 2005.
At the end of a tense, stormy primary day, in which Netanyahu’s side emitted text messages with invented commandments—“thou shalt not betray”—and supporters of his opponent, Gideon Saar, cried foul over electoral misbehavior, Netanyahu won, convincingly.
The final result was 72.5 percent for Netanyahu, and 27.5 percent for Saar, a former minister who ran on a nationalist agenda a notch harsher than Netanyahu’s and argued for a return to civility and decency in politics.
The only way to guarantee the continuation of the right-wing’s monopoly over the Israeli government was for new leadership to take over in the Likud, Saar said.
Netanyahu failed to win a majority of votes in two successive elections held this year, in April and in September, and has presided over the Israeli government as an interim prime minister, with limited powers, for a full year.
A ruthless political operator, Netanyahu has never nurtured successors. Most of the men who have served him, including former Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman and former Education Minister Naftali Bennet found themselves out of the Likud when their popularity began to threaten Netanyahu.
Saar is the only prominent Likud figure with the courage to state out loud what the Israeli public already knows: there is no path for Netanyahu to form a new government after the national elections on March 2, 2020.
In fact, the exuberance at this victory among the party faithful could fade as early as Sunday, when Avichai Mandelblit, the Israeli attorney general, has been forced to produce his opinion on a legal conundrum never before seen here.
In November, Mandelblit announced a raft of corruption charges against Netanyahu, including bribery, fraud, and breach of trust.
In order to protect a legally elected head of government from frivolous legal challenges, an Israeli Basic Law—a constitutional act—allows an indicted prime minister to serve out his or her term in office even while facing trial.
But another law legislated by the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, does not allow any indicted person to be appointed to high office.
Neither of these laws has ever been tested. Israel’s Supreme Court, which is grappling with several petitions claiming Netanyahu cannot legally remain in office, has compelled Mandelblit to present his decision on Netanyahu’s ability to continue in office, a sort of forced amicae curiae, by Sunday.
In the coming months, the court will rule on Netanyahu’s fitness for office as a candidate under criminal indictment.
Blue and White—the Likud’s opposition in the general election, which bested Netanyahu’s party in September—is led by the centrist former army chief, Benny Gantz, who ran on clean government platform. Throughout the failed coalition talks, he said his party hoped to form a broad national unity government with the Likud— but would not serve with an indicted criminal.
Saar, during the primary, claimed that Gantz would win the March vote if the Likud was not able to renew its leadership, offering a new coalition government, and that Netanyahu’s stubborn hold on power would bring defeat.
Knowing he faced serious charges, Netanyahu has been scrambling to evade judgement. The law allows him to remain in office, but not to evade trial. During the last year, Netanyahu has tried to pass a personal immunity law through the Knesset and, created an even greater public uproar, tried to pass a law that would override supreme court decisions.
But having failed, but he will now run a scorched earth campaign aimed at a single target: a large enough parliamentary majority to pass an immunity law.
Before the primary results were even announced, Netanyahu confidant Miki Zohar, a rambunctious Knesset member for the Likud, said, “Netanyahu got the answer about whether he should ask for immunity.”
But Netanyanhu’s big night may result in very bad news for his party, the Likud, who will be running an indicted candidate who’s twice lost and wants only one thing: legal immunity, which the voters hate.
Israelis are generally indulgent about Netanyahu’s various offences and peccadillos, but deeply oppose parliamentary immunity, and Gantz accuses him of seeking only an “immunity government,” not a real governing coalition, and of holding the nation hostage to his legal imbroglios.
In May, when Netanyahu presented the initial bills, 62% of the Israel public opposed immunity for Netanyahu. Recent polls show that figure now above 70%, from voters across the political spectrum.
Netanyahu has until January 1 to request immunity against the criminal charges, but would need a majority of members to support it—and, for now, he hasn’t got it. The primary victory is expected to emboldened him to demand parliamentary support from the entire right wing block.
If Netanyahu does not succeed whipping a majority of Israel's 120 lawmakers to support immunity, he will be put on trial in Jerusalem immediately after the next government is formed.