MK Gideon Sa’ar launched his longshot bid to unseat Benjamin Netanyahu as leader of the Likud party Monday, saying that the prime minister has “no chance” of winning the next elections and urging change as the only way to ensure the continued right wing rule in the country.
Cheered by a crowd of some 1,000 people chanting his name as “the next prime minister,” Sa’ar cast himself as an antidote to longtime leader Netanyahu, who has failed in successive bids to form a coalition government.
“Everyone understands there is no way Likud will form a government after the March 2 elections,” the popular former minister said, citing polls saying the right-wing religious bloc is losing ground ahead of an unprecedented third round of voting.
“If nothing is changed, we are very close to a left-wing government that will endanger the country and all of our achievements. It will also block us from reforming the justice system, which is needed,” he said.
A poll published by the Kan public broadcaster on Sunday suggested Likud led by Sa’ar would emerge weaker after the March elections, but the right-wing bloc would be bolstered by the support of parties to the right of Likud, which would gain the support of far-right voters fleeing the faction.
Likud members will have a chance on December 26 to choose whether to stick with Netanyahu, who has been charged in three criminal cases, or switch to Sa’ar, an ex-minister without the international cachet of Netanyahu, who has been the prime minister for the last decade.
The primary is the first real challenge to Netanyahu’s leadership of the party in 14 years and Sa’ar is considered a longshot to win, though a number of prominent Likud members have lined up behind him in recent days.
Speaking at an Or Yehuda event hall decked out with Likud balloons and “Only Sa’ar can” bunting, the challenger praised Netanyahu for his achievements, saying he stood by the prime minister “even when he harmed me. Because I always tried to act in the best interest of the country. And that is precisely what we are doing here today.”
But Sa’ar also slammed Netanyahu for “slander” and “threats,” accusing him of muddying the internal Likud vote.
“It is particularly sad when those attacks come from home,” he said, urging his activists not to be dragged down to the premier’s rhetoric and to be respectful of him.
Sa’ar argued that Netanyahu is divisive and has proved he cannot put together a coalition, after failing following two national elections in April and September.
Many Likud members have criticized Sa’ar over his public challenge of Netanyahu’s leadership, with some even accusing him of “betrayal.”
Despite polls showing Likud sinking by four seats under Sa’ar, he claimed that he would be able to boost the party’s numbers by returning voters who formerly voted for the Kulanu party and who are currently supporting Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu.
“The decision is simple: Choosing me will guarantee the continued Likud leadership and new government headed by us. Choosing Netanyahu is choosing the next opposition leader. Blue and White are hoping we make no change. They want nothing more than Netanyahu heading Likud,” he told the crowd.
Most polls show rival Blue and White leading Likud by several seats no matter who is prime minister. Blue and White has indicated it will not sit under Netanyahu as prime minister given the criminal cases hanging over him, suggesting that Sa’ar or another Likud leader could end the country’s year-long political morass.
The former education and interior minister highlighted his role as leader of negotiations in 2009 that brought the party to power.
“Nobody has done more than I have so that we [Likud] survive and return to the leadership, so that our vision leads the country. And nobody knows this better than Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. There is nobody I’ve done more for than Netanyahu, and I don’t regret that,” he boasted.
Sa’ar thanked his supporters — including Likud MK Haim Katz, who was at the event, after reports said he was about to announce his backing for him — saying: “I know what you have gone through after expressing your support.”
“I will make my best efforts not to disappoint all of you who have expressed your trust in me.”
Katz is considered a relative heavyweight in the party. He chairs the party’s central committee and holds sway over Likud voters from Israel Aerospace Industries, having led its powerful workers union for more than 20 years. IAI, Israel’s largest state-owned company, employs some 16,000 people and is seen as a Likud stronghold closely aligned with Katz.
However, he is also facing criminal indictment which could undermine his political sway.
Speaking before Sa’ar, MK Sharren Haskel, another Likud lawmaker who has backed Sa’ar, accused Netanyahu of striking down many right-wing and liberal moves that she had tried to promote, adding that Sa’ar has been a “true partner” for her.
“I view Sa’ar as the one who can and is worthy of leading Likud and the state,” she said.
MK Michal Shir, a former aide to Sa’ar, said that, “For the first time in a decade, the right-wing rule is in danger,” pointing out that Netanyahu has twice failed to form a government.
“We have to look reality in the eyes,” she said, adding that polls are indicating that Likud will not win with Netanyahu at its helm.
“Sa’ar increases the strength of the right-wing. I call on everyone to whom the right-wing rule is important — wake up, it’s in your hands. The best thing for the left is preserving the current Likud leadership. They know that only Gideon Sa’ar can take Knesset seats from them. It is time for Gideon Sa’ar.”
The Knesset dissolved itself last Wednesday night, triggering national elections for the third time in under a year. The Knesset set the date of the elections for March 2.
Netanyahu is widely expected to beat Sa’ar, with sky-high support inside Likud, despite the charges in a trio of corruption cases against him. The party, which has only had four chiefs since the country’s founding, is seen as fiercely loyal, though Sa’ar, trying to convince voters that new blood is needed, has hammered at Netanyahu’s inability to form a coalition.
Netanyahu has been charged in three criminal cases with fraud and breach of trust, and with bribery in one of them. The Blue and White party, Likud’s chief rival in the past two elections and in the upcoming March vote, has said it will not serve with a prime minister who is facing criminal indictment.