In an apparent about face, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was reported to be backing away from the possibility of holding flash primaries for the leadership of Likud Thursday night, mere hours after first floating the possibility.
Associates of the prime minister told Channel 12 news that a 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.
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, Gideon Sa’ar, perhaps the prime minister’s greatest opponent within Likud, signaled he would be a contender. “I’m ready,” Sa’ar tweeted.
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 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.
Also 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 but himself right up 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.
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 stay potentially on until all appeal processes are exhausted.
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.