Gideon Sa’ar, head of the New Hope party and the man shaping up to be Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s most formidable challenger in the upcoming election, said Monday that Israel should limit the tenure of prime ministers to eight years.
“This will be the first law we pass,” he said, speaking at a conference of the Israel Democracy Institute.
Cumulatively, Netanyahu has been prime minister for 14 years, 11 of them consecutively since 2009.
Sa’ar also said city mayors should be limited to two terms. Many mayors around the country have become entrenched in their posts, and some have been in office for decades.
He said he believed in decentralized government, with more authority given to local leaders rather than the national leadership.
He spoke as Eilat Mayor Meir Yitzhak Halevi became the latest Likud member to quit the party and join New Hope, after Sa’ar split from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s party to form his own slate.
Halevi, who has been mayor of the Red Sea resort city since 2003, will be given one of the top 10 spots on New Hope’s electoral list, according to a statement from Sa’ar’s spokesperson.
Like other Likud politicians who have joined New Hope, Halevi said he was leaving the party because of Netanyahu.
“Today, at a time when we need unity most of all, Likud under Netanyahu’s leadership is leading a divisive, inciting and fiery discourse and adopting a culture of slander,” Halevi was quoted saying in the statement.
He also slammed the government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has pummeled Eilat’s tourism-dependent economy. Under a third national lockdown that took effect Sunday evening, Eilat’s status as a “tourist island,” where coronavirus restrictions were lighter, has been canceled.
“We are witnessing a lack of management at best and bad management at worst, and the third lockdown… is proof of this. The public is disappointed by the current government and its leader and needs a new hope,” Halevi said.
Sa’ar praised Halevi for his tenure as Eilat mayor and said the two had a “shared vision” of governance. “Meir consistently supported me and my political path over the years and I’m very happy he’s joining the New Hope team for the 24th Knesset,” he said.
Halevi joins several other Likud politicians who have broken away to join New Hope since Sa’ar launched the party earlier this month and vowed to challenge Netanyahu for the premiership: MKs Yifat Shasha-Biton, Michal Shir, Sharren Haskel and the premier’s onetime confidant Ze’ev Elkin.
Halevi’s announcement came after a report Sunday said Netanyahu was looking to shore up Likud’s ranks with a number of prominent figures, in a bid to curb support for New Hope.
Citing sources in Likud, the Walla news site reported that the prime minister has recently been in contact with former IDF brigadier general Gal Hirsch about securing him a high spot on the Likud slate for the upcoming elections.
Hirsch, who left the Israel Defense Forces in 2006 amid criticism over the military’s failures in the Second Lebanon War, was nominated in 2015 to serve as Israel’s next police commissioner, but the appointment was derailed by reports of corruption probes into his business dealings. In July of this year, state prosecutors said they were considering indicting him for tax crimes.
Ahead of the April 2019 elections, Hirsch launched the Magen Israel party, which failed to clear the minimum vote threshold. He then joined Likud, but was placed 100th on the party’s slate in the September 2019 and March 2020 elections, with no shot of entering the Knesset.
The report said Netanyahu wants to give Hirsch a prominent spot on the Likud slate as part of the party’s campaign against the justice system and law enforcement, which the prime minister has regularly lashed out at over his criminal trial on corruption charges.
Another name reportedly mentioned by Netanyahu was Ron Dermer, the Israeli ambassador to the US and longtime top aide to the prime minister, whose term in Washington is set to end next month.
Last year, the news site reported that Netanyahu sees Dermer and Mossad chief Yossi Cohen as his prospective successors after he bows out of political life.
According to Walla, Netanyahu was also considering helping former prime minister and Likud leader Ariel Sharon’s son Gilad Sharon secure a spot on the slate.
Sources told the news site that there had been efforts to mediate between Netanyahu and Gilad Sharon, who have had fraught relations, but Likud sources have expressed doubt over the possibility of such reconciliation.
Sharon denied the contacts and said he hasn’t recently been in touch with Netanyahu or any of his representatives.
Last year, Netanyahu refused to grant an exception allowing Sharon to run in the Likud primaries, as he was several months short of the three years of membership required to be eligible to run for a post on the slate — though Minister Yoav Gallant was exempted from the requirement after defecting from the Kulanu party.
According to recent television polls, Netanyahu and his ultra-Orthodox allies will fall short of a majority in the new elections, even if the national-religious Yamina joins them, though Sa’ar also has no clear path to forming a government without Likud.
Sa’ar on Sunday night doubled down on his pledge that he would not join a Netanyahu-led government.
“I intend to replace Netanyahu… Under no scenario will I join a government led by him, because his continued rule is contrary to the good of the state and we won’t compromise on that,” Sa’ar said in an interview with Channel 13.
Elections were called last week after the power-sharing government of Likud and Blue and White failed to agree on a budget by a December 23 deadline. They are set to take place on March 23, 2021.