In pivot, Netanyahu considers proposal to set Likud primary for next year

Amid criminal probes and challenge from rival Sa’ar, PM urged by party colleagues to avoid flash leadership vote, with ministers warning he has much to lose and little to gain

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C) fixes his eyeglasses during the swearing-in ceremony at the Knesset in Jerusalem on October 3, 2019 (Menahem KAHANA / AFP)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C) fixes his eyeglasses during the swearing-in ceremony at the Knesset in Jerusalem on October 3, 2019 (Menahem KAHANA / AFP)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is weighing a suggestion by Likud minister Haim Katz to hold a Likud leadership vote in a year, signaling the premier is retreating from the prospect of flash primaries, an idea floated earlier on Thursday and met with a challenge by rival Gideon Sa’ar.

According to Katz’s proposal, the Likud Central Committee would convene next week and schedule the leadership primary for a year from now, while publicly backing Netanyahu for prime minister in the coalition negotiations, according to Hebrew-language reports.

Netanyahu has yet to make a decision, the reports said.

Associates of the prime minister told Channel 12 news earlier on Thursday night that an imminent primary was far from a sure thing, amid reports that several Likud ministers who had met with Netanyahu throughout the day had warned him that he had little to gain but much to lose in such a contest.

President Reuven Rivlin, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and party leaders pose for a group picture during the swearing-in of the 22nd Knesset in Jerusalem, on October 3, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

A leadership primary in which Netanyahu was the clear winner was seen as a way of bolstering the scandal-plagued prime minister’s status as the unchallenged leader of Likud, and of signaling to other parties hoping for a coup, amid gridlock in forming a government, that there would be no mutiny.

It could also promise him the leadership of the party until the end of the term of the 23rd Knesset — potentially as long as eight years away.

But soon after the prospect of a leadership contest was announced by Likud Thursday morning, Sa’ar, perhaps the prime minister’s greatest opponent within Likud, signaled he would be a contender. “I’m ready,” Sa’ar tweeted.

Likud MK Gideon Sa’ar attends a Likud faction meeting at the opening of the 22nd Knesset in Jerusalem, on October 3, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

While Netanyahu enjoys great popularity within Likud, his failure to form a coalition following the April election, and his struggles to do so once again after last month’s vote, have dented his reputation as the invincible prince of Israeli politics.

Sa’ar, who enjoys great popularity among Likud’s voter base, could prove a formidable challenger when the party’s 130,000 card-carrying members vote in a primary.

Even if Netanyahu did win, a bruising leadership battle could leave the party’s dirty laundry out for all to see, after years in which it has mostly managed to tamp down on internal dissent even as Netanyahu has faced mounting legal woes.

According to Channel 12, a major factor in Netanyahu’s reconsideration is his understanding that a contest would be held in November at earliest, allowing his rivals to well prepare and pushing the primary vote towards dates when decisions could be made by state prosecutors on whether to charge him in three separate criminal cases — an inopportune time to ask for a vote of confidence.

Thursday night, meanwhile, Hebrew media reported that Netanyahu was continuing to push for his allies to sign a declaration that they will not support any other candidate for the leadership position right up to the point that new elections are called, if it comes to that.

The idea of pledging support to Netanyahu was first floated during a Wednesday meeting between leaders of the right-wing religious bloc led by Likud, but the Yamina and United Torah Judaism parties were said to refuse. However on Thursday it was reported that UTJ had agreed to the notion, while Yamina remained undecided.

Yamina party chief Ayelet Shaked and other party members hold a press conference after meeting with President Reuven Rivlin at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem, September 23, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Neither Netanyahu nor rival Blue and White leader Benny Gantz has a clear path to a Knesset majority. Netanyahu is currently trying to muster a coalition, without success. Gantz is likely to be given the task if he fails.

Talks between Netanyahu and Yisrael Beytenu chief Avigdor Liberman over the latter’s proposal for a unity government ended Thursday morning without progress.

Likud and Blue and White have been negotiating a possible power-sharing deal with a rotating premiership, but the two parties have been unable to agree on who would be prime minister first under such an arrangement.

Gantz has refused to sit in a coalition with Netanyahu so long as the prime minister is facing indictment, and has been hoping that Sa’ar or another prominent Likud figure might lead a breakaway within the party and join forces with him.

In the context of his legal battles, Netanyahu is anxious to remain in office as he fights the allegations against him. Under Israeli law, ministers must vacate their posts if charged, but prime ministers can potentially stay on until all appeal processes are exhausted.

Blue and White leaders Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid (L) share a laugh during a faction meeting at the Knesset on October 3, 2019. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)

Netanyahu again called for a “wide national unity government” Thursday to stave off a third round of elections in less than a year, saying the country’s security challenges demanded political stability and a broad-based government.

Gantz repeated his call for Netanyahu to step aside. “If he vacates his position, there will be a unity government within an hour,” he told reporters at the Knesset.

On Wednesday, at the first of Netanyahu’s pre-indictment hearings, his defense team presented state prosecution officials with new arguments and fresh evidence in the cases, which they asserted “completely contradict the claims in the charge sheet.” The hearing continued Thursday.

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