Primaries reinvigorate Netanyahu and tighten the political knot

Netanyahu re-learned a valuable lesson about political campaigning, and the Left will have more fodder in the months to come

PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the Likud party headquarters in Tel Aviv.  (photo credit: REUTERS)
PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the Likud party headquarters in Tel Aviv.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spent evening after evening over the past two weeks in the living rooms of Likud activists packed with supporters hanging on his every word. Sometimes he stood on chairs, or even tables to make sure the rapt audiences could see him and hear every word.
Sure, there were plenty of campaign events in rented halls, but there were an unusual amount of home visits. The pictures were reminiscent of Mimouna, the Moroccan-Jewish holiday on the night after Passover. That was usually the annual event in which Netanyahu graced the living rooms of activists, like now-MK Keti Shitrit in Bet Shemesh.
But with the Likud holding its first leadership primary in five years and the most serious race in 14 years, despite rival MK Gideon Sa’ar’s poor odds, Netanyahu decided it was time to get back in touch with the party’s grassroots.
The plan worked, with Netanyahu winning a resounding 72.5% victory. Sa’ar’s 28.5% was respectable, but not what he and his supporters had hoped for.
Likudniks are known for being very loyal to their leaders, and most kept to that tradition on Thursday, but word on the Likud street was that many did not just vote for Netanyahu out of habit.
Likud activists felt reinvigorated by Netanyahu coming to their town and went out to vote for their guy, even in the pouring rain – an obstacle for the average citizen – and despite political fatigue ahead of the third Knesset election in less than a year.
And the energy was mutual. Netanyahu seemed to be just as rejuvenated as his base. It’s not that Netanyahu has ever really seemed to be lacking in energy, but in the last election, he didn’t really seem to be giving it his all. Practically the entire campaign was run via Facebook videos.
In the past two weeks, Netanyahu learned that old-fashioned politics, with a human touch, is still relevant, even as we enter 2020. He’s expected to take that lesson along with him on the next two months of the campaign trail.
But Netanyahu’s decisive victory isn’t just going to change his campaign style; everyone to the left of the Likud now has more fodder for their campaigns.
Likud and Blue and White couldn’t work out a unity government after three attempts between September and December, in part because of Netanyahu’s legal woes.
Netanyahu insists that he’s innocent until proven guilty and shouldn’t be politically penalized because of his pending indictments, while Blue and White say that someone in his situation should not be prime minister both as a matter of values, and for the technical reason that he will be very preoccupied with his trial.
That knot is unlikely to be untangled between now and March, when someone is tasked with forming the next government. Everyone is trying to move the political needle in hopes that the next Knesset will look much different from the two inaugurated in 2019, and a unity coalition won’t be necessary.
As Blue and White leader Benny Gantz said on Friday: “The State of Israel must set out on a new course. To make that happen, Blue and White must achieve a decisive outcome that will extricate us from both political deadlock and a path of corruption.”
Similarly, Labor-Gesher leader Amir Peretz said: “Our goal is to do everything to reach 61 seats for the center-left bloc without [Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor] Liberman.”
Gantz gave an indication of how he plans to reach that goal, doubling down on the anti-corruption rhetoric, saying “the defendant Netanyahu” won the primary, lamenting that the prime minister “is seeking to unravel the rule of law” and calling Likud “the Netanyahu party.”
A truly significant change is needed from the last election for either the Right or the center-left to be able to form a coalition on its own. Netanyahu’s victory may have reinvigorated much of the Likud, but it has kept the political knot as tight as ever.