Two weeks ago, when Israel’s attorney-general said Benjamin Netanyahu would face trial over corruption charges, the air was thick with predictions the prime minister’s political career was finally over.
Commentators suggested that Likud could kick him out of the party and form a governing coalition without him. His political rivals hoped he would be forced to resign, driven out of the office he has held for more than 13 years by the impending trial.
None of that has come to pass. Instead Mr Netanyahu has chaired his regular cabinet meetings, flown to Portugal to hold a one-on-one meeting with Mike Pompeo, the US secretary of state, and engineered a crucial delay to any attempts to dislodge him as head of the party.
At the same time, he has held campaign-style events that have corralled support from his loyal followers.
“Why should he hide his head in shame?,” asked Esther Kohen, a 33-year-old mother who said she has always voted for Mr Netanyahu. “He is innocent, and he is a leader — he should fight till the end.”
It is a sentiment echoed by many of his supporters, who have largely accepted Mr Netanyahu’s claims that the criminal charges are the result of a leftwing conspiracy between a hostile media and a pliant judiciary.
According to a poll by the Israel Democracy Institute, only a third of Israelis believe Mr Netanyahu should resign immediately, as Ehud Olmert, his predecessor, did when accused of corruption in 2008.
Israel’s electoral stalemate has also played out in Mr Netanyahu’s favour. Neither Likud nor its main challenger, the Blue and White party, have been able to negotiate a parliamentary majority since deadlocked elections in April and September. The next deadline to form a government runs out at midnight on Wednesday, after which Israel will return to the polls for the third time in less than a year.
That would leave Mr Netanyahu as caretaker prime minister until the polls, likely to be held in March, with the continued ability to use his office to rebuff the charges.
Mr Netanyahu also cannot be formally indicted until a parliamentary committee has ruled on whether to extend to the prime minister a form of immunity from prosecution enjoyed by members of the Knesset. And that committee cannot act until a new government is in place.
“There is time, there is always time — that’s the beauty of Bibi, he always finds time,” said a Likud central committee member, referring to Mr Netanyahu by his childhood nickname. The committee member asked not to be identified as they were commenting on internal party discussions.
Until then, Mr Netanyahu has to hold on to his position as leader of Likud. So far, he has succeeded in tamping down signs of internal opposition.
Gideon Sa’ar, his main challenger for party leadership, was greeted by boos on Sunday as he used a speech at a Likud meeting to ask Mr Netanyahu to step aside.
Mr Sa’ar, who served as education minister and minister of interior before taking a break from national politics, has been heralded by the Israeli media as the heir to Mr Netanyahu’s throne. But his name recognition lags far behind Mr Netanyahu, who has spent the past decade ensuring there is no clear successor in Likud, shuffling cabinet positions and hoarding many of the most prominent positions — from the defence ministry to foreign affairs — for himself.
“Who is Gideon Sa’ar?” asked Eitay Sharbaf, a Jerusalem handyman who has voted Likud since the late 1970s, when his family first moved to Israel. “No, I am serious — who is he?”
A chastened Mr Sa’ar, told a local radio programme that the loud boos that drowned out some of his speech on Sunday were not spontaneous but rather orchestrated by his rivals. “It’s strange that they were let into the meeting,” he protested.
But Mr Netanyahu’s behind-the-scenes manoeuvring has already denied Mr Sa’ar his first demand: a primary to remove the prime minister as party leader that might have freed up Likud to form a government with Benny Gantz’s Blue and Whites before the Wednesday deadline. Mr Gantz had repeatedly refused to form a coalition with Likud while its leader remained under investigation.
“Bibi asked us all one simple question: can Gideon Sa’ar win a national election?” said a senior party member, who wanted an early primary. “I am afraid he is right. This will be the toughest election we have faced, and for now, Bibi is our only chance.”
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