The Likud Central Committee on Thursday confirmed that leadership primary in the ruling party would be held on December 26, a day after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and committee chairman MK Haim Katz agreed on that date.
Netanyahu earlier told Likud MK David Bitan to shelve his initiative to nix the primary, an idea floated by Bitan on Wednesday when he announced that he had obtained enough signatures to call a secret vote on canceling the leadership vote. That would have been a major setback for MK Gideon Sa’ar, who is mounting the first serious challenge to Netanyahu’s 14-year hold on the party.
“Likud is a democratic movement and its members will decide who leads it,” Netanyahu’s campaign said in a statement. “Prime Minister Netanyahu is sure he will win their overwhelming backing.”
Bitan subsequently said that while he believed Likud should focus on winning the elections, he was withdrawing his initiative.
The Knesset dissolved itself Wednesday night, meaning third national elections in under a year are a certainty.
Hours earlier, Bitan told Channel 12 TV that the next round of elections would be “Netanyahu’s last chance” to form a coalition. Asked what would happen if the Netanyahu-led right-wing and ultra-Orthodox bloc again failed to win a majority 61 Knesset seats, Bitan said he didn’t “want to get into that” but believed the prime minister would be successful in his third attempt.
The move appeared to be an attempt to outmaneuver Sa’ar, who had been pushing for the leadership primary, and prevent a wider vote among Likud members.
Netanyahu and Sa’ar are currently the only contenders who have announced they will run in the primary.
Sa’ar has argued that Netanyahu is divisive and has proven he cannot put together a coalition.
“If Netanyahu wins the primary, there won’t be a government,” Sa’ar warned Thursday in an onstage interview at a financial services conference in Ashkelon.
“We have to preserve Likud’s democratic tradition for two reasons: because Likud is a democratic movement, and because if it stops being democratic it will fall,” he said.
In a Wednesday statement, Sa’ar said: “I will conduct a positive, clean and issue-driven campaign, and present an agenda for Israel’s future. There is a national need for a breakthrough that will end the ongoing political crisis, enable the formation of a strong government, and unite the people of Israel.”
Sa’ar had initially called for the primary to take place during the 21-day period ending Wednesday for MKs to recommend a candidate to form a coalition, saying that it was the only way to break the deadlock between Likud and its main rival, the Blue and White party.
With no candidate receiving the support of 61 MKs by midnight Wednesday, national elections were automatically called, with the Knesset setting the date of the elections for March 2.
While Netanyahu initially opposed a leadership primary, he agreed this week to hold one after the end of the 21-day period.
That announcement came a day after Sa’ar was loudly jeered as he called for a primary at a meeting of the Likud Central Committee, which voted to scrap a planned general primary for the party list. Netanyahu too was heckled at the event, by some pro-Sa’ar activists.
Netanyahu is widely expected to beat Sa’ar in the primary, with sky-high support inside Likud despite 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.
Sa’ar’s bid has, however, 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 in the event of a leadership contest.
Interviewed by The Times of Israel on Monday, Sa’ar said that internal polls show him “not far behind” Netanyahu, “and that is even before the race has properly started.”
Raoul Wootliff contributed to this report.