Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan announced Tuesday that he would back Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in this Thursday’s Likud party leadership race against MK Gideon Sa’ar, who is running to unseat the long-serving premier.
“As a member of the security cabinet, I am very familiar with the tremendous challenges we face… and therefore, after taking into account all the considerations, I’ve arrived at the conclusion that Prime Minister Netanyahu is the most worthy person to continue to lead Likud,” Erdan said in a short video statement posted to social media.
While backing Netanyahu, Erdan — the fourth highest placed candidate in Likud — took pains not to appear aligned against Sa’ar in the increasingly acrimonious contest, saying he welcomed Sa’ar’s challenge to Netanyahu’s 14-year rule of the party, which “helps ensure democracy” in the Likud.
“Unlike other voices that we’ve heard, I’m convinced it strengthens Likud,” Erdan said of Sa’ar’s candidacy. “Our real competition is on March 2 against the left, and we must come to it united for a Likud victory.”
Along with Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, Erdan had been one of the last Likud lawmakers declining to take sides in the race.
Erdan’s announcement comes as the race itself grows increasingly heated, with accusations from Sa’ar supporters of vote suppression and complaints of constant verbal abuse from Netanyahu’s supporters.
Sa’ar supporters claimed last week that thousands of likely voters for the challenger had been purged from the party’s rolls ahead of the primary, a claim party officials have denied, and hundreds of others allegedly saw their assigned polling stations moved to cities and location far from their actual homes.
Sa’ar supporters have also faced a torrent of verbal abuse on social media by Likud activists accusing them of disloyalty and charging that they were attempting to destabilize the party.
On Tuesday, Sa’ar’s wife, television news anchor Geula Even, told the Ynet news site that the vituperation was constant, but “I’m not willing to take a step back because of these attacks. I ignore it, because I don’t see it as important. It doesn’t affect the [political] situation.”
She said her young son David recently came home from kindergarten worried that another child had said he had seen someone on TV call his father “crazy.”
“I thought, ‘Wow, it’s lucky that’s all he heard.’ … Some part of the general discourse is penetrating through to him,” she said, despite “our constant efforts to shield him from it.”
Likud MK Michal Shir, one of the earliest and most outspoken supporters of Sa’ar who has faced a concerted campaign of vitriol on social media from some party activists, lashed out at the abusers on Monday.
At a Hanukkah candlelighting ceremony with party activists, the lifelong Likud member and former aide to Sa’ar choked up as she told the audience, “In recent weeks, I’ve been called names that I thank God my parents are no longer alive to hear, and my kids not old enough to read.”
She noted her longstanding membership in the party: “Friends, there are people here who know me from when I was 5 years old, and people who know me from when I was 14, coming and going from [Likud headquarters in] Metzudat Ze’ev. Likud is my home, a family. Everything I’ve done was out of love and concern for our movement.”
As the primary race entered its final days, Netanyahu’s campaign accused Sa’ar of being “aligned with the left,” while Sa’ar promised that if elected he would push for Netanyahu to be appointed Israel’s next president, a largely ceremonial post.
Sa’ar, considered a serious underdog in the Likud leadership race, floated the idea of seeking to make Netanyahu president at an event Monday with supporters.
“If you give me the power on Thursday… and I am chosen as Likud chairman, I will seek for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to be elected Israel’s next president in the elections set for a year and a half from now,” Sa’ar told supporters at a campaign rally.
In that role, he said, Netanyahu “will be able to continue contributing from his international [diplomacy] skills to Israel’s status in the world.”
President Reuven Rivlin’s seven-year term as the Jewish state’s 10th president is set to end in July 2021. Israeli presidents are chosen by Knesset legislators and have historically been politicians.
Sa’ar went on to praise Netanyahu as “undoubtedly one of the world’s greatest statesmen.
“But we’ve found ourselves in a situation that is very painful to us all,” he said, in reference to the prime minister’s failure to form a government following two consecutive elections this year. “With the country in gridlock for a year, conclusions must be drawn.”
Netanyahu’s campaign dismissed the presidency offer as “spin.”
“Gideon Sa’ar’s spin unfortunately indicates that he has aligned with the left and the media to remove [Netanyahu] from leading the country,” a statement accused.
“This is not the time for division in Likud, but rather for unity around Prime Minister Netanyahu.”
Sa’ar responded in a tweet, denouncing the “baseless attacks by the Netanyahu campaign.”
Sa’ar is seen as having little chance of beating Netanyahu in Thursday’s leadership primary, though he poses the greatest challenge to the premier from within his own party in years.
He has based his candidacy on Netanyahu’s failure in consecutive attempts to form a coalition following this year’s two elections in April and in September. The prime minister also faces corruption charges in three criminal cases.
The charges against Netanyahu, who denies wrongdoing, were a major bone of contention in unity talks between Likud and the rival Blue and White party following elections in September, which, like the previous elections in April, left both parties short of a majority together with their respective allies.
Given that failure, Sa’ar has painted himself as being far better poised to form a government following the upcoming March 2 race.