MK Gideon Sa’ar issued a call for civility among Likud members ahead of the party’s leadership primaries Thursday, accusing supporters of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of launching “racist” attacks against him.
Sa’ar’s comments Wednesday came shortly after video shared on social media showed Culture Minister Miri Regev, a prominent backer of Netanyahu, declaring in a speech to supporters that “we will not let the Bukharans win here.” Sa’ar is of Bukharan Jewish heritage on his mother’s side.
“Unfortunately, over the past hours and days, the other side has disseminated extreme fake news: lies, slander, defamation and racist statements,” Sa’ar wrote. “This is not our path. This is not the path of the Likud.”
“We have committed to a dignified and respectful campaign and we stand by that,” he continued, accusing Netanyahu of running a “negative campaign” that avoided grappling with serious issues.
He later shared a picture of himself in traditional Bukharan garb, writing “Proud Bukharan.”
בוכרי גאה! pic.twitter.com/GEAeQpuoRi
— גדעון סער (@gidonsaar) December 25, 2019
Sa’ar, a hawkish former education and interior minister, is the sole challenger to Netanyahu in the Likud leadership race.
In response, Regev attacked Sa’ar for “taking a humorous statement and portraying it as racist,” Hebrew news website Ynet reported.
She explained that senior political activists involved in wrangling votes for both Sa’ar and Netanyahu were Bukharans and asserted that none of the attendees at the event at which she made her comments had failed to understand her comments.
The contest has grown 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.
He 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.