Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sought and obtained a signed commitment from the party’s top Knesset candidates that they are united behind him and do not intend to replace him.
The move, which was first reported by the Ynet news site early Sunday, came a day after one of Netanyahu’s top rivals said he could try to forge a coalition government after elections with someone else in the party if the prime minister refused to play ball.
Netanyahu required the top 40 candidates for the Knesset to a sign a declaration of loyalty, reading: “We, the undersigned, candidates on the Likud list for the 22nd Knesset, emphasize that we will not be dictated to by any other party. Regardless of the election results, Prime Minister and Likud Chair Benjamin Netanyahu is the only Likud candidate for prime minister, and there will be no other candidate.”
Former coalition chairman David Bitan, who was pushing the initiative, told Kan public radio later Sunday morning that 90% of Likud lawmakers had signed the letter. He said he would publish the names of any Likud MKs who refuse to sign.
By early afternoon, all 40 of the Likud’s top candidates had signed.
A number of Likud Knesset members confirmed publicly that they had signed the declaration. “I also signed. Only Netanyahu,” Likud MK Miki Zohar tweeted. “Likudniks only think about what is best for the country and therefore put Netanyahu at the head,” Zohar said.
Freshman Likud MK Shlomo Karhi said he signed the letter with “faith and great pride” and chastised other parties for not holding leadership primaries. “Any dictatorial party who dares to preach to us [about] who was chosen to lead us needs first to look in the mirror and be deeply ashamed,” he wrote on Twitter.
Likud MK Nir Barkat said he would also sign the letter. “We’re loyal to the leader,” he told Ynet.
The Likud party initially told The Times of Israel it had no comment on the move and Likud MK Osnat Mark earlier dismissed it as “spin.”
“I have no idea what this is about, no one talked to me, it’s more Ynet spin,” she told the Galei Yisrael radio station.
Bitan said the purpose of the initiative was to stop “spin” from rivals who said they were talking to Likud members about replacing Netanyahu.
“This is a disgrace; they don’t speak with anyone,” he said.
Blue and White No. 2 Yair Lapid said Sunday members of the Likud party were indeed talking to the Blue and White party about a possible successor to Netanyahu.
“Bibi is right. Everyone in the Likud party is already looking for his heir and talking to us about it. At the moment it is whispers. But not for long,” Lapid tweeted, using the prime minister’s nickname.
The Democratic Camp said in a statement that, “Netanyahu’s puppet parade continues to help him in his quest to escape the threat of justice.”
The Likud loyalty initiative was said to have begun on Saturday after Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman laid out a scenario by which he could push for Netanyahu’s ouster as the head of the party.
Liberman, who is seen as a key piece needed to complete either a right- or left-wing coalition, has said he will only join a unity government led by Likud and Blue and White.
Likud has thus far dismissed the idea of a unity government, and has declared it will seek a coalition with right-wing and religious parties.
Last month Gantz said that he was “in talks with Likud’s representatives” about the possibility of forming a national unity government without Netanyahu, who is facing charges in three graft cases, following the election.
At the time, spokesperson for Blue and White declined to give details on who from each party had purportedly met, when or where, but said that the comments were “more straightforward than anything else said on the matter thus far.”
Liberman said that if Likud wins more seats than Blue and White in the September vote but does not commit to forming a coalition with Blue and White and Yisrael Beytenu, he would ask Likud to “place someone else as head of the party.”
Asked to propose a Likud member who could head the party instead of Netanyahu, Liberman named Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein.
“I am certain that in the Likud, when they realize that once again Netanyahu won’t be able to form a government just like he couldn’t in April, another party head will be found,” said Liberman, who earlier on Saturday admitted that he was interested in the role of prime minister, and said he wouldn’t rule out the idea of a rotation in the role.
Shortly after Liberman made his comments, Netanyahu’s son Yair accused Edelstein of attempting to engineer a coup against his father.
“Liberman just revealed by mistake on live TV the coup he has been planning with Edelstein,” Netanyahu tweeted. “And they say I can’t keep my mouth shut.”
He later deleted the tweet. When other users claimed he was making the accusations on behalf of his father, he denied it. “I’m an adult and I write on my iPhone what comes to mind in the moment,” he said.
Edelstein later tweeted his support for Netanyahu as “the sole Likud candidate for prime minister.”