News Analysis: Israeli Likud's primary likely to be game-changer for political deadlock

Source: Xinhua| 2019-12-25 20:57:10|Editor: huaxia
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by Keren Setton

JERUSALEM, Dec. 25 (Xinhua) -- Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is running for renewed leadership of his Likud party Thursday against veteran politician Gideon Saar.

Netanyahu's popularity in the party appears to be steadfast. But is it really?

In announcing his candidacy, Saar took an unorthodox step in the Likud by challenging a sitting prime minister from the party. Netanyahu, who has been in power for over a decade now, is believed to have a strong hold on the Likud.

"Netanyahu, in a series of political maneuvers, has obstructed Saar's chances," said Tal Schneider, diplomatic and political correspondent for Israeli financial newspaper Globes.

Netanyahu has managed to make changes in voting procedures within the party that are believed to help him secure a majority.

Stormy weather forecasted for Thursday may also influence voter turnout. Approximately 120,000 Likud members are eligible to vote.

The last time the Likud held an internal vote for its leadership was in 2014 and there have been several general elections since.

"He wasn't successful in evading the primary this time around," Schneider told Xinhua, "this shows some weakness of Netanyahu in the Likud."

In the short campaign ahead of the primary election, the 70-year-old Israeli premier has travelled throughout the country gathering support, which signaled he is not taking the vote lightly.

Although his victory is almost certain, he aims to win by a landslide, so as to solidify his power and leave any questions on his grip behind.

Saar's opponents and Netanyahu's supporters say Saar comes with little experience and a much less impressive record than the sitting prime minister.

"Saar cannot take credit for any major reforms or achievements," said Reuven Hazan, a professor from the Department of Political Science at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

"Those who vote for Saar are the ones who are already thinking of the day after Netanyahu. If a third of them vote for him, this means Netanyahu is losing the grip on his party," Hazan added.

Saar, however, does not come without significant support and there are certain merits to his argument.

Israel is heading to a third general election within one year in March 2020. Netanyahu was unable to form a coalition government after the last two elections and Saar is banking on this political failure.

"Netanyahu does have a lot of opponents within the Likud, things are not so clear-cut," Schneider added.

Netanyahu's political struggle is largely due to his legal one. Under three indictments of fraud, bribery and breach of trust, his ability to form a government became limited as potential partners disqualified him.

Saar says it is not Netanyahu's legal status that he is fighting against, but his political failure that will lead the Likud to the opposition seats in the coming general elections in March 2020.

"It is time to make a change. We have followed the prime minister for 20 years but now he is blocked and it is not fair that the Likud will be blocked and the country be stuck," said Saar, while speaking to supporters in central Israel earlier this week.

Israel's political stalemate and interim government has lasted a year already, with no clear end in sight.

While Saar's chances of winning the primary election are slim, it is rare to see such visible cracks in the Likud which prides itself as a party that supports its leaders unconditionally.

Saar, the 53-year-old politician is considered a promising future leader of the Likud. He has held ministerial positions and was Netanyahu's cabinet secretary during the latter's first stint as prime minister in the late 1990's.

"If Saar will get close to 40 percent of the vote, Netanyahu will enter the general election as a damaged, bleeding candidate," said Hazan, adding "if almost half of the Likud supporters didn't vote for Netanyahu in the primary, how many will vote for the Likud in a general election?"

Many leading Likud members, including holders of top government portfolios, have professed their desire to lead the Likud someday, but all have said they will do so after the end of Netanyahu's era.

The main option for a coalition government remains a union between the two big parties, namely the Likud and opposing Blue and White.

Led by Benny Gantz, Blue and White's main campaign promise has been not to sit in a government with an indicted prime minister. This is the logic behind Saar's run. His supporters believe that if he will lead the Likud, the path to ending the elongated political stalemate is clear.

"What really matters are the general elections, if then Netanyahu will not get more votes than last time, he will not be able to form a government," said Hazan.

There are many factors that will determine the results of the next election with the Likud primary being only one of them. Next week the Israeli Supreme Court is scheduled to deliberate on the question on whether a candidate under indictment can be given the mandate to form a government.

Any decision will be a game-changer. What is certain is that the Israeli public has lost its appetite for elections and is hoping the third one will be the last one for at least a few years.

Polls are currently showing that Saar would have a better chance at forming a government.

"If Netanyahu wins in the Likud and then in the general election he gets more than 30 mandates, this will strengthen the political deadlock," said Schneider.