Likud begins planning leadership race as PM faces 1st real challenge in 14 years

Party’s Central Committee to vote against primaries for the full Knesset list; Netanyahu-Sa’ar vote likely set for December 22, if new elections are called

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shakes hands with Gideon Sa'ar during a Likud party meeting at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem on March 11, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shakes hands with Gideon Sa'ar during a Likud party meeting at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem on March 11, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party is to begin discussions on holding a party leadership primary that is expected to see the first real challenge to the premier’s leadership in 14 years.

Likud’s Central Committee is to meet Sunday to begin the process of planning and scheduling party primaries, officials said.

At the Sunday gathering, the committee’s roughly 3,000 members are expected to vote to not hold a full primary race for the entire Knesset slate. The committee will meet again sometime after December 11 to decide on a date for a primary race for the party leadership, officials said.

Netanyahu spokesman Jonatan Urich sent a brief note to the press Wednesday explaining that “the decision as to [whether to hold] primaries for the chairmanship of Likud will be taken later — if and when we are forced to go to elections.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a Likud party rally in Tel Aviv, on November 17, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Other sources said such a race could not be avoided, given the very public challenge being mounted to Netanyahu’s leadership by MK Gideon Sa’ar, a popular former education minister and former party no. 2.

A Channel 12 report, apparently contradicting Urich, said the party would set the leadership race for December 22 — assuming no government is formed by December 11 and new elections are called.

Sa’ar announced last month he would demand a primary race and would run to unseat the scandal-plagued Netanyahu. He has shied away from criticizing the prime minister’s legal troubles, but has argued instead that Netanyahu’s inability to decisively win the last two elections proved the party needed new blood at the top.

His bid has drawn broad support from a number of influential Likud mayors, including from the party’s rightist pro-settlement wing, while many of the party’s top officials, including Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, MK Avi Dichter and Regional Cooperation Minister Tzachi Hanegbi, have remained pointedly mum about who they would support.

Likud party MK Gideon Sa’ar seen with Likud supporters during an event in Hod Hasharon, November 25, 2019. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

Netanyahu faced challengers before, including former science minister (now Israel’s envoy to the UN) Danny Danon, but not from the party’s front benches. In 2014 he won handily and in the 2016 primary he ran unopposed.

December 11 marks the deadline for forming a government in the current Knesset. If no government is formed by then, the 22nd Knesset will be forced to go to new elections sometime in late February or early March.

That unprecedented third election within a year is looking increasingly likely. Unity talks between Likud and Blue and White remained stalled on Wednesday, with neither Netanyahu nor Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz able to form a government following two consecutive elections in April and September, nor to hammer out a power-sharing agreement between them.

The unprecedented political gridlock — April’s election was the first in Israel’s history that did not produce a government — has propelled the first serious challenge to Netanyahu from within the party’s ranks since he took over as leader from Ariel Sharon in late 2005.

Illustrative: Members of the Likud Central Committee vote in Tel Aviv in 2013. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

Sa’ar’s supporters have argued that with him at the helm, Blue and White’s campaign promise not to join a coalition with a Likud premier under indictment would be rendered moot, and the path would be cleared out of the nearly year-long political gridlock. Netanyahu has led an interim government since the 20th Knesset voted to go to elections in late December.

But polls have not favored Sa’ar’s bid, with a Channel 12 survey this week showing Likud dropping from 33 seats to 26 if Sa’ar replaces Netanyahu, with the lost votes going mostly to smaller right-wing parties.

Both Netanyahu and Sa’ar support the expected Sunday vote to avoid primaries for the entire Knesset list. The current list was elected by some 70,000 of the party’s 120,000 members in February, and those lawmakers have scarcely had a chance to serve as MKs since that race.

Netanyahu is said to be taking Sa’ar’s challenge seriously. He spent much of Tuesday huddled with political supporters and advisers at Likud headquarters on King George Street in Tel Aviv, the Kan public broadcaster reported. The discussions dealt with logistics and procedures, and were meant to lay the groundwork for leadership primaries sometime after December 11.

Last month, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit announced criminal charges — including bribery, fraud and breach of trust — against Netanyahu in three corruption probes.

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