Should new national elections be called and a Likud party leadership contest be held, Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein may present himself as a candidate, Channel 12 news reported Thursday.
Edelstein has long been seen as one of the party’s leading voices and is currently placed second on the party’s Knesset slate behind Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The report said Edelstein has in recent days been laying the groundwork for a potential run for Likud chairman, seeking to solidify his standing in the party and holding numerous conversations with influential party members.
So far, only Likud MK Gideon Sa’ar has officially announced he will challenge Netanyahu in any such leadership primary. If Edelstein joins the fray, the report noted, it could increase Netanyahu’s odds of winning, as any anti-Netanyahu vote would split between the other two candidates.
Edelstein’s office denied the TV report, saying he was “focused these past days on one thing only: forming a government and preventing another, unnecessary, costly and irresponsible election. That is his message to all those he meets. Any claim otherwise is incorrect.”
Edelstein has been one of several senior Likud officials who have been conspicuously silent since criminal charges were announced against Netanyahu last Thursday.
In recent days, Edelstein has led last-ditch efforts to form a unity government between Likud and its rivals in the Blue and White party, so far with little apparent result. The Knesset has until December 11 to endorse a candidate for prime minister or a new round of national voting will automatically be triggered, the third in under a year.
After Netanyahu and Blue and White’s Benny Gantz both failed to form a government following the September 17 election, there has been some speculation that another candidate, such as Likud’s MK Gideon Sa’ar or Edelstein himself, would use the period to gather the 61 signatures of MKs that would see them tasked with forming a coalition. Neither, however, has thus far appeared to take that step and unity talks are ongoing.
On Thursday night, Channel 13 news reported the latest Likud proposal to Blue and White would see Netanyahu serve as prime minister for 3-4 months before stepping aside to allow another Likud official to lead the country. Netanyahu would not continue to serve in the government, but would remain a Knesset member. Blue and White would receive the premiership after half the term — two years.
The report said Blue and White officials were unsure whether the offer was genuine and that there were internal party debates on whether to consider it.
A Channel 12 report on Tuesday had detailed a slightly different proposal, with Netanyahu serving as premier for several months, then a Blue and White member — likely Gantz — taking over for two years, after which a Likud candidate would take over for the remainder of the term.
The prime minister, facing criminal charges and stalled coalition talks, has found his position increasingly tenuous in recent days.
Challenger Sa’ar on Saturday night called for a snap primary for head of Likud in time to avoid a third round of elections. saying he could rehabilitate the party and form a government — a task Netanyahu has failed at twice this year.
On Sunday, the prime minister agreed to a Likud leadership contest, but the primary will likely not take place until after the December 11 deadline to form a government.
Sa’ar accused Netanyahu of prolonging the political deadlock that has wracked the country for the last several months by refusing to step down.
While many in the opposition have called for Netanyahu to resign following the announcement of criminal charges against him last Thursday, Sa’ar cited the political morass as the main reason for the prime minister to step down.
“Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu should take responsibility — not because of the indictment, but because of the situation the country is stuck in, without the ability to establish a government,” Sa’ar said Tuesday.
After Netanyahu failed to form a majority coalition following April elections, he dissolved parliament to prevent his chief rival Blue and White party leader MK Gantz from being given a chance to form a government. However, a second vote in September did not produce a clear victor, and both Netanyahu and Gantz were subsequently unable to achieve either a coalition or a unity government between their parties.
While Blue and White refused to serve under a prime minister facing corruption charges, Netanyahu insisted on bringing a bloc of allied parties into the government, likely enabling him to seek Knesset immunity from prosecution.
Netanyahu has vowed to stay on and fight the charges while serving as premier, accusing the law enforcement community of attempting a coup. On Monday, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit announced he could remain prime minister in a caretaker government, despite the criminal charges, but did not comment on his ability to form a new one.
Many in Likud still loyal to Netanyahu
Sa’ar, a popular former minister, has emerged as Netanyahu’s most strident challenger, exposing cracks in a Likud party where loyalty is fiercely guarded. Only four men have ever led the party and internal dissenters are often shunted aside, where they often form new political parties to challenge it from without.
Sa’ar’s challenge to Netanyahu was attacked by some in the party. Foreign Minister Israel Katz, who has expressed interest in leading the party once Netanyahu’s time is up, accused Sa’ar of “crossing a red line.”
Culture Minister Miri Regev, among the prime minister’s most vocal supporters, has said she hopes Sa’ar won’t “stab Netanyahu in the back.”
Sunday saw intense public feuding between Sa’ar and former Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, now a senior Likud MK. Barkat, also seen as a possible future contender to replace Netanyahu, placed himself firmly in the premier’s camp, when he said Sa’ar’s push for primaries “isn’t innocent,” but rather “a move to oust the elected chairman and prime minister, bypassing the party’s constitutional procedures and with complete disregard for what the majority of Likud members want.”
On Tuesday, several thousand backers of Netanyahu rallied in Tel Aviv in support of the embattled premier’s claims that prosecutors set to indict him for graft were attempting to overthrow him in a “coup.”
At the rally, the crowds waved Israeli flags and held signs that advanced Netanyahu’s demand to “investigate the investigators.”
Organizers had originally said that they were expecting at least 10,000 people to participate. Reports estimated turnout at 5,000-7,000.
Particularly noticeable in their absence were most Likud lawmakers and cabinet ministers. After it became clear that most of Likud’s elected leadership was either hesitant or adamantly opposed to participating in a rally that claimed a “coup” was underway against Netanyahu, the party issued a statement on Tuesday evening saying politicians were not invited to the event.
Also Thursday, Channel 12 reported that the heads of local governments in southern Israel have written a letter urging Netanyahu and Gantz to put aside their differences and form a unity government to face the challenge of the ongoing rocket threat from the Gaza Strip.
The letter, to be issued at the start of next week “set aside ego, partisanship and politics and place at the top of the agenda the most important issue of all: human lives and the future of our children in the [Gaza] periphery.”