The Likud party is reportedly in tumult after MK Gideon Sa’ar publicly challenged faction leader Benjamin Netanyahu Saturday, calling for him to open up the party to new leadership following the announcement of long-awaited graft charges.
Sa’ar, already seen as Netanyahu’s main challenger, castigated the prime minister for describing the charges against him as an attempted coup, demanded an immediate leadership contest in Likud, and claimed he could “easily form a government.”
The gambit set off a firestorm within the party, according to Ynet news, which reported that senior lawmakers were considering what steps to take and whether to choose sides.
“There is a lot of disquiet in Likud,” a senior source within the party told the news outlet. “The question is whether it will translate into action. Before yesterday, there was a feeling that there was more loyalty to the leader than to the party. We have to see how it plays out.”
Since becoming prime minister in 2009, Netanyahu has held an iron grip on Likud, a party in which loyalty is fiercely guarded and which has only seen a handful of leaders since it was formed in a merger of right-wing parties in the 1970s.
But that hold has come under fire since Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit announced Thursday that he would charge Netanyahu with fraud and breach of trust in three criminal cases, and bribery in one of them. The charges 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.
“Does anybody think that in any third, fourth, fifth or sixth elections, he could create a government? Either there’ll be a continuation of this [political] crisis, or heaven forbid, we’ll lose power to our rivals,” Sa’ar told Channel 12 news.
He said Likud leadership primaries should be held within two weeks, to allow the new leader to try and form a government within the current 21-day period allotted for the Knesset to agree on a prime minister before Israel would be forced to go to new elections.
Likud Central Committee Chairman MK Haim Katz indicated possible support for primaries, saying that if a candidate wanted to run for the leadership of the party they should be allowed to, according to Ynet. But he did not mention a timeframe for such a contest.
While no other senior Likud members have come out publicly against Netanyahu, several have declined to issue public statements backing the premier, leading to speculation of a silent mutiny.
Among those are Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein and MK and former Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat.
Reports carried on Israeli television Friday pointed to backroom rumblings among senior Likud members who were working to dethrone him, but were having trouble uniting around a single candidate.
“We are trying to figure out how to wrest the party from his hands,” an unnamed party official was quoted telling Channel 13 news.
Observers say Netanyahu has managed to hold on to power in the party partially by outmaneuvering and pushing out potential challengers, including Sa’ar, a popular former minister who spent several years in political exile before making a comeback earlier this year.
Despite Netanyahu openly campaigning against him, Sa’ar managed to place fairly high up on the party’s slate in a non-leadership primary earlier this year. He is seen as the most formidable challenger to Netanyahu’s rule in years, after Netanyahu easily trounced his opponents in the last two leadership primaries in 2012 and 2015.
Sa’ar is so far the only senior Likud lawmaker to challenge Netanyahu. He said Saturday that he had been targeted for years by Netanyahu and his family, “but that doesn’t affect me. My interest is the wellbeing of the state and the [Likud] movement.”
Despite having an indictment hanging over him, Netanyahu has vowed to remain prime minister while he fights the charges, though he will likely be forced to give up several ancillary ministries he has held onto in the transitional government.
Late Saturday, United Torah Judaism head Yaakov Litzman was given the okay by the party’s rabbinic leadership to assume the title of health minister. Netanyahu had held the role, but Litzman, whose ultra-Orthodox party shuns too much cooperation with the state, was the de facto ministry head while holding the deputy minister title.
Calls for Netanyahu to step down have amplified since Mandelblit announced the charges against Netanyahu. On Saturday night, large rallies were held both for and against the prime minister at several locations around the country.
In Jerusalem, the premier briefly came out to shake hands with some of the several hundred supporters gathered outside his official residence.
In video shared by Netanyahu’s Twitter page, he can be seen grasping people’s hands as the crowd strains against a security barrier, singing “we love you.”
תודה על התמיכה האדירה! אני אוהב אתכם ❤️ pic.twitter.com/yc0YFnvOJg
— Benjamin Netanyahu (@netanyahu) November 23, 2019
Across the street from the residence, about 100 people rallied against him.
In Tel Aviv, around 2,500 activists congregated at Habima Square to call for the premier’s ouster. Democratic Union leader Nitzan Horowitz called on Netanyahu to resign and for his Likud colleagues to stand up to him.
“I call on my political opponents, members of Likud, these are the days of the political decline of the outgoing prime minister. There is life after Netanyahu,” Horowitz said.
Gantz, who has said he will not sit in a government under a prime minister under indictment, called Saturday night for Likud to abandon Netanyahu and join him in a unity government.
“I call to the leaders of Likud: I respect you and call for a partnership with you, even if we do not agree on everything,” he said. “Now is the time to put your fears aside and past threats aside and march Israeli society to a new era of healing.”
Gantz offered a power-sharing government in which he would serve the first two years as prime minister. Afterwards, if Netanyahu had cleared himself of all wrongdoing in court, Gantz said, he was welcome to retake the reins of power for the remaining two years.
Likud, in a terse response, said Gantz had already failed to form a government. “If Blue and White presents a different chairman, we will consider offering them to be first in a rotation.”
Mandelblit is expected to formally inform Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein about his decision to indict the prime minister in the coming days. From that moment on, Netanyahu has 30 days to decide whether he wants to ask the Knesset for parliamentary immunity. The fact that the Knesset House Committee — which handles immunity matters — is not currently functioning complicates the process, and it is not immediately clear how Israel’s political deadlock will affect the process by which the state prosecution would otherwise move toward formally filing the charges in the Jerusalem District Court.
In a scathing address Thursday night, Netanyahu dismissed the allegations against him as part of a coup and demanded that the police and prosecution be investigated for wrongdoing.