Netanyahu one up on potential rivals

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu touring the German-made Rahav submarine on its arrival at Haifa port on Tuesday.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu touring the German-made Rahav submarine on its arrival at Haifa port on Tuesday.PHOTO: REUTERS

JERUSALEM • Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is in a bitter election fight to decide the leader of his Likud party - even though he is the only candidate.

He has pushed for an early primary vote for his party, less than a year after the general election, in what analysts say is a manoeuvre to clear out potential rivals.

But since Mr Netanyahu is the only contender, opponents have harshly criticised the plan to hold the costly primary for the right- wing party's 100,000 members, calling it a coronation for the politically savvy Premier.

"He made sure he is the only candidate," said Hebrew University's political scientist Gayil Talshir.

"He wanted to make sure that he is the only one - that he is going to be the head of the Likud ahead of the next elections."

The early primary is the result of political gamesmanship within Likud and reflects Mr Netanyahu's strategy as he looks ahead to the next general election, due in 2019 at the latest, analysts say.

The 66-year-old leader is a shrewd political operator. He has been in the Prime Minister's Office for a total of nearly a decade - fast approaching revered founding father David Ben-Gurion's 13 years.

But the US-educated Mr Netanyahu can also be divisive, and he is not without potential challengers from within his party.

Welfare Minister Haim Katz, who has been aligned with Mr Netanyahu's rivals, won a vote to be chairman of Likud's powerful central committee last month.

Mr Netanyahu at the same time pushed for approval of a Feb 23 primary - less than a year after the country went to the polls last March. Analysts say it was to prevent the committee from undermining his bid for another term.

The winner of the primary will in theory be locked in as Likud's candidate for prime minister in the next general election. The tight time frame before the primary vote made it unlikely that challengers would be able to mount a credible campaign against him.

When the deadline for candidate nomination arrived on Sunday, Mr Netanyahu was confirmed as the only person in the race.

There have since been questions over whether Likud should push ahead with the vote at an estimated cost of about four million shekels (S$1.4 million) or simply declare Mr Netanyahu the winner.

But there have also been reports that Mr Netanyahu prefers a vote to be held to ensure his legitimacy cannot be challenged.

"If he's nominated and not elected, then two years from now some contenders can say, 'Well, you were nominated; you were not elected. Let's have primaries'," said Bar-Ilan University political scientist Shmuel Sandler.

Opinion polls have not been kind to Mr Netanyahu, who has faced criticism over his government's failure to halt a wave of Palestinian knife, gun and car-ramming attacks that began in October. A recent poll shows around 32 per cent of Israelis were satisfied with his job performance.

But Likud finished firmly ahead of its left-wing rivals from the Zionist Union last March, and Mr Netanyahu holds a nationwide stature that opponents would have trouble overcoming for now, analysts say.

"They have a brand name," Mr Sandler said of Likud and its leader.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 14, 2016, with the headline 'Netanyahu one up on potential rivals'. Print Edition | Subscribe