It was a lesson in the limits of power, a clear and sharp signal of a yearning for statesmanship and unity. The Likud faction in the Knesset has behaved in a certain way to date - but Likud members, as the results of the primaries show, behave in a different way entirely.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has for a long time been campaigning against the man he views as a bitter political rival, Gideon Sa'ar. Netanyahu put Sa'ar on equal footing and somehow let this primary turn into a leadership contest. Sa'ar did not quite understand how he got into this situation, but knew that even the smallest misstep would cost him dearly.
So while the Knesset members were busy with low-profile political assassinations, Sa'ar pulled out the big guns and the entire country watched as he tried to dodge the heavy fire coming at him from the Prime Minister's Office. Somehow, eventually, he got in two hits. It took a while, but first he courageously stood up to Netanyahu and returned fire (granted in a measured manner, but fire nonetheless) and second, he managed to get himself elected to a very high spot on the Likud list, despite the public assassination attempts.
Netanyahu, more than anyone else, should have known how the Likud operates. Anyone who claims that he is being persecuted by the media, cannot then use the same media to attack another Likud icon, and expect it to pass unquestioned. That's just not in the Likud DNA.
Netanyahu sought help from the party faithful to get rid of Sa'ar, but alas for the prime minister they showed a modicum of political wisdom and self-preservation: They wanted to keep both the present (Netanyahu) and the future (Sa'ar) happy without letting their dear leader force them to choose between the two. They did not buy into the "subversive" label Netanyahu tried to hang around Sa'ar's neck, but did buy into the prime minister's claim that he was being persecuted by external forces.
And so it turned out that the hope harbored by senior Likudniks that Sa'ar would languish low on the list following his extensive hiatus (over four years) was dashed - as was the hope that Netanyahu would do the work for them.
Sa'ar's success is not the only story of the primaries. Even more striking is the surprising in way which the list panned out. Netanyahu's minions, his "bully boys," paid a heavy price this time. They were pushed down or even off the list and replaced by the more traditional MKs, the ones who in the previous two election cycles paid the price for what was perceived as milquetoast behavior.
Take Tzipi Hotovely, for example. Even she, who began her political career in the Knesset as the extremist on the list, has in the past Knesset appeared as a model of statemanship.
Alongside Yuval Steinitz, Avi Dichter, Nir Barkat and Ophir Akunis - who criticized the law enforcement and judicial institutions but maintained to exert a certain degree of restraint - Hotovely is well-positioned in the middle of the list, at the expense of those who have had far too much media exposure and and who competed more aggressively. Some of the faces who will not be seen in the plenum after April can still be spotted in the notorious selfie taken by Oren Hazan after the passage of the Nation-State Law.
Now, with a relatively functional list in place, and a top tier that has already shown it will not sit on the fence for Netanyahu at any price (and has not hesitated to get into certain political confrontations with him), the Likud leader is looking at a challenging term in the shadow of his legal entanglements. From now on, he not only has to contend with a powerful Gideon Sa'ar, himself a skilled political player with a long memory, there is also a stinging loss in the secure spot for the Tel Aviv area (claimed by a former aide to Sa'ar) and in the Dan region, where Haim Katz's bureau chief was picked.
All of this, along with a new Mr. Security breathing down his neck (Benny Gantz) and an old rival in a new format (Naftali Bennett unfettered by rabbis), the headache of this election campaign is likely to be just the start of Netanyahu's woes.