Likud officials are reportedly warning they could “punish” MK Gideon Sa’ar for running against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the party primary, as tensions lingered Sunday over the leadership race that saw the incumbent win by a landslide last week.
Netanyahu defeated Sa’ar late Thursday, picking up 72.5 percent of the party vote. The contest was the first significant challenge to Netanyahu’s leadership of the Likud party in more than a decade, but he maintained the support of the vast majority of the party’s Knesset members and its prominent local leaders and activists, and can thus utilize the result as a boost ahead of Israel’s third general elections in under a year.
Conceding defeat overnight Thursday-Friday, Sa’ar said he would back Netanyahu and work to bring Likud to victory in the March 2 general election.
But while some Netanyahu-backing ministers embraced Sa’ar, others were apparently less forgiving.
“If Sa’ar continues to make mistakes, he’ll simply be erased,” an unnamed Likud official told the Yedioth Ahronoth paper, in an article published on Sunday,
“There is a lot of resentment over his style, over his offer to appoint Netanyahu as president and because in practice he called for him to resign,” the official was quoted as saying, referring to a Sa’ar campaign pledge. “In his place, I would take a vacation to ‘think it over.'”
The report said officials in the party were weighing “punishing” Sa’ar for his challenge.
In response, Sa’ar said Sunday he would not succumb to threats.
“Haven’t you learned that threats won’t work on me? This is not the Likud way,” tweeted Sa’ar, alongside a photograph of the front-page Yedioth article.
Sa’ar’s candidacy had been criticized by Netanyahu allies as disloyal and destabilizing to the party at a time when unity is required.
Netanyahu, who has piloted the right-wing party since 2005, was widely tipped to win the contest easily, despite having recently been charged in three criminal cases. He had hoped for a landslide victory that would cement his hold on the party, after two failed attempts to form a government and his legal woes had led to questions over his ability to helm the faction.
Sa’ar, meanwhile, had hoped to at least garner 30 percent of the vote in order to demonstrate the strength of the anti-Netanyahu camp within the party. He ultimately won 27.5%.
Going into Thursday’s vote, Netanyahu portrayed Sa’ar as inexperienced and himself as a security buff and master of international diplomacy. Sa’ar, on the other hand, sought to outflank Netanyahu from the right and argued only he could ensure continued Likud rule following the premier’s failures to assemble a government.
The March 2 elections comes after Netanyahu failed to form a coalition in two elections earlier this year, denting his reputation as the consummate expert in Israeli politics.
The run-up to the contest grew stormy, with accusations from Sa’ar supporters of vote suppression and complaints of constant verbal abuse from Netanyahu’s supporters.
Agencies contributed to this report.