V The March 2 Knesset election will be Benjamin Netanyahu’s ninth campaign as leader of Likud and 12th altogether as a Knesset candidate. But never in his long political career have the personal stakes for him been so high.
If the coalition supporting him failed to win a majority in this election, Mr Netanyahu will not only be finally forced out of office. His hopes of obtaining parliamentary immunity from prosecution will be dashed too, and the corruption case against him will go ahead.
Last Thursday, Mr Netanyahu cleared another hurdle on his way to the election when he won the Likud leadership primary by a landslide of 72.5 per cent of Likud members voting. The prime minister was expected to win the primary handily, against his sole challenger, former minister Gideon Saar, but despite being the clear frontrunner, he spared no efforts in short campaign.
For the fortnight before party members went to the polls, Mr Netanyahu toured the country manically, holding three or four small meetings or rallies with supporters each evening. He used his control of the party apparatus ruthlessly to hold the primary at the most convenient date for him, limiting the number of voting stations where Likudniks could vote and purging the rolls of “disloyal” party members.
Under the circumstances, Mr Saar’s 27.5 per cent ocould perhaps be seen as an achievement — despite everything, 15,885 Likudniks voted to replace their leader. But Mr Saar’s political fortunes are now a matter for the post-Netanyahu era, whenever it comes.
The crucial question for this election is whether Mr Netanyahu can replicate his major support within his party in the wider public. In his victory speech on Friday morning, he said that “most of the nation supports the right-wing. The nation supports me as prime minister.” But does it?
On the face of it, the answer does not seem very positive for the prime minister. The first polls carried out since the primary shw no “reelection bump,” with the results very similar to those in the previous election in September. On the other hand, the fact that he has not been doing worse, after plunging Israel in to an unprecedented third consecutive election, could also give him some grounds for optimism.
But the basic fact is that in successive polls, around 60 per cent of Israelis, no matter their political affiliation, have said they think Mr Netanyahu should go. And his victory in the primary, which has solidified the Likud’s image as being little more than its leader’s personal platform, could actually deter former Likud voters.
Since the primary, he has expressed his confidence that the momentum created will push voters who stayed home last time to go out and vote Likud — but if they were not inclined to do so last September, why would they do so next March?
His biggest dilemma now is whether to request parliamentary immunity from prosecution by the deadline on Thursday. Mr Netanyahu had yet to officially make that request as the JC went to press on Monday night, though he was widely expected to do so.
The incentive is clear: with the Knesset dissolved, the committee which votes on parliamentary immunity cannot be convened and the legal proceedings against the prime minister are delayed until after the election. Not requesting immunity would mean that proceedings against him can begin in the next few weeks. However, polling shows that 51 per cent of the public is against him having immunity, while only 33 per cent is in favour.
To prepare the ground, Mr Netanyahu has made various excuses, saying that he seeks not immunity from prosecution, but the ability to serve the nation in his next term as Israel’s elected prime minister without hindrance and that “immunity is a cornerstone of democracy.”