Barkat proposes primary for Likud deputy to replace Netanyahu if he’s forced out
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Barkat proposes primary for Likud deputy to replace Netanyahu if he’s forced out

Former Jerusalem mayor says plan to elect No. 2 will ‘thwart attempts to divide the party, and strengthen Likud’

Raoul Wootliff is the The Times of Israel's political correspondent.

Nir Barkat (center) with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) during a special cabinet meeting for Jerusalem Day at the Ein Lavan spring in Jerusalem on June 2, 2016. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool)
Nir Barkat (center) with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) during a special cabinet meeting for Jerusalem Day at the Ein Lavan spring in Jerusalem on June 2, 2016. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool)

Amid growing tension within the ruling party over calls to hold an immediate internal leadership election, Likud MK Nir Barkat presented on Sunday a plan to instead hold primaries for a new position of deputy head of the party who would replace Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu if he is forced to take a leave of absence to deal with the indictments against him.

With Likud in tumult after MK Gideon Sa’ar publicly challenged Netanyahu on Saturday, calling for him to open up the party to new leadership following the announcement of the long-awaited graft charges, Barkat says his plan will “thwart attempts to divide the party, and will strengthen Likud.”

The proposal would see the creation of a deputy leader position that Barkat said would be “inspired by the US model, [with] the president and vice president working together.”

The deputy leader “will be elected in the primaries by Likud members, identical to the election of the leader, will be placed second in the Likud electoral list for the Knesset, and will hold the most senior post in the government or the Knesset after the chairman of the party,” the proposal says. Crucially, he would automatically take the helm of the movement if the incumbent chairman stepped down.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at a Likud party rally in Tel Aviv on November 17, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Since becoming prime minister for the second time in 2009, Netanyahu has refrained from naming a permanent designated deputy prime minister, either from Likud or another party in his coalition, who would automatically take the reins if he were unexpectedly indisposed or removed from office by impeachment. Instead, each time he travels abroad or undergoes a medical procedure under sedation, Netanyahu names a different senior Likud minister as his temporary stand-in.

According to Barkat, the position of deputy party leader is needed so that Likud prepare itself for a situation in which Netanyahu is forced to take a leave of absence or if there is a legal impediment barring him from forming a government in the future due to the announcement of criminal charges against him. Barkat claimed that several Likud MKs were trying to gain support from their colleagues to back them as prime minister in such a scenario.

“I would like to offer my support to prime minister and Likud chairman Benjamin Netanyahu, and wish us all a fair trial, which will prove his innocence, and allow him to continue to lead the State of Israel with great success, as he has done so far, for many more years,” the former Jerusalem mayor said in a statement.

He added, “Selecting and appointing a replacement for the chairman at this time will ensure backing for the chairman of the movement, Benjamin Netanyahu, enable governmental continuity and party unity in the event of Prime Minister Netanyahu needing to step aside, and enable the establishment of a national government at the same time.”

Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz delivers a statement to the press in Tel Aviv, on November 23, 2019 (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The charges announced by Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit have compounded an already fragile situation in which Netanyahu and chief rival Benny Gantz of the Blue and White Party have both failed to form a government, putting the country on the path toward a dreaded third round of elections within a year.

With both Netanyahu and Gantz having failed to cobble together a coalition following the September election, the Knesset is currently in a 21-day period, ending at midnight on December 11, in which any candidate receiving the support of 61 MKs can be tasked with forming a government. Failing that, a new election must be called — one in which Netanyahu has made clear he intends to run, and one that could yield a very similar result to that of the two elections already held this year.

Barkat, who is calling for his proposal to be voted on by the upcoming Likud Central Committee meeting on December 15, also said Sunday that he would seek approval from Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein and the heads of other parties to advance legislation to extend the 21-day period in order for his party to adopt the plan.

Likud MK Gideon Sa’ar, speaking during a conference in Tel Aviv on September 5, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Sa’ar on Sunday formally asked the Likud’s top decision-making body to schedule snap leadership primaries, as Netanyahu was reportedly maneuvering to fend off the challenge to his longtime rule. The veteran Likud MK on Saturday criticized the premier for describing the indictment as an attempted coup and claimed he could “easily” put together a government following Netanyahu’s failure to do so after two consecutive elections.

In his request to Likud Central Committee head Haim Katz, Sa’ar asked that the leadership race be held within the next two weeks. This would also allow a potential new leader to try and form a government within the current 21-day period before Israel would be forced to go to new elections.

According to Hebrew media reports Sunday, Netanyahu was seeking to condition a leadership race on the scheduling of general primaries for Likud’s electoral slate, hoping backbenchers would come out against the move for fear of losing their seats.

Calls for Netanyahu to step down have amplified since Mandelblit announced the charges on Thursday. On Saturday night, large rallies were held both for and against the prime minister at several locations around the country.

Netanyahu faces charges of fraud and breach of trust in three cases, as well as bribery in one of them. He denies wrongdoing and has dismissed the allegations against him as part of a coup, demanding that the police and prosecution be investigated for wrongdoing.

The attorney general is expected to announce this week whether there is a legal impediment preventing Netanyahu from forming a government in the future.

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