Embattled Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu looked set to face a party leadership challenge within weeks amid opposition within Likud to his continued reign, as he faces trial in three corruption cases.
Netanyahu on Sunday night acquiesced to the demand from party activists, led by challenger Gideon Sa’ar, for new leadership primaries. In talks Sunday with MK Haim Katz, who chairs the party’s central committee, Netanyahu agreed to hold the contest within the next six weeks.
According to Channel 12 news, while the premier “didn’t rule out” agreeing to Sa’ar’s call to hold the leadership contest in the 17 days remaining to avoid general elections, the scenario was seen as unlikely, the report said. Sa’ar had called for a snap contest to give the primary winner a chance to form a coalition and avoid sending the country to a third consecutive election.
Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit’s bombshell Thursday announcement of charges against the prime minister sent shockwaves through the Likud party, and helped drive the first serious leadership challenge to Netanyahu since late party leader Ariel Sharon left in 2005 to form the Kadima party, leaving Netanyahu at the helm.
It marked the first time in Israel’s history that a serving prime minister faces criminal charges, casting a heavy shadow over Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, and his ongoing attempts to remain in power.
Netanyahu sought to sound upbeat on a tour of the northern border on Sunday, insisting the legal turmoil had not hindered his ability to govern.
“I’m doing everything required to ensure the government’s and cabinet’s work is getting done in all the ways required to ensure the safety of Israel’s citizens,” he told a reporter. He insisted he was performing his duties “in the best possible way, out of supreme devotion to Israel’s security,” that his judgments “are substantive and my decisions have been very good.”
Notably, asked by one reporter if he would seek parliamentary immunity to avoid prosecution — something he has long been reported to be seeking, but has regularly denied being concerned with — the premier refused to answer.
“Well, now, you’re asking much more complicated questions,” he told the journalist, patting him on the arm and walking away.
Netanyahu’s political position has been tenuous since Mandelblit’s announcement. He vowed he would stay on and fight what he called “tainted” and prejudiced investigations, and accused police investigators and prosecutors of an “attempted coup.”
Meanwhile, with both Netanyahu and Blue and White leader Benny Gantz having failed to cobble together a coalition following the September election, the Knesset is currently in a 21-day period, ending at midnight on December 11, in which any candidate receiving the support of 61 MKs can be tasked with forming a government. Failing that, a new election must be called — one in which Netanyahu has made clear he intends to run, and one that could yield a very similar result to that of the two elections already held this year.
The idea of new elections led by a soon-to-be-indicted party leader has driven some Likud leaders, albeit anonymously, to express growing frustration at Netanyahu’s refusal to step aside.
“If Netanyahu prevents [timely] primaries for technical reasons, he shouldn’t be surprised if someone [else] in Likud suddenly obtains 61 signatures,” one unnamed senior Likud minister told Channel 12.
Following reports that Mandelblit was set to issue a formal legal opinion on whether Netanyahu, while facing indictment, could even be tasked with forming a coalition, Channel 12 on Sunday said the attorney general did not plan to do so immediately.
Responding to media queries, sources close to Mandelblit said he would only offer an opinion on the question if Netanyahu were to obtain the support of a majority of MKs to form a government before the December 11 deadline, and otherwise “has no intention of dealing with hypothetical questions.”
Channel 13 news, meanwhile, reported that in the case of new elections with Netanyahu at the helm of Likud, both Mandelblit and President Reuven Rivlin will be required to give their positions on the matter, as the public must be informed if a lead candidate cannot in actual fact form a government.
Sunday also saw intense public feuding between Gideon Sa’ar and former Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat, now a senior Likud MK. Barkat, seen as a possible contender to replace Netanyahu himself, placed himself firmly in the premier’s camp in the afternoon when he said Sa’ar’s call for primaries “isn’t innocent,” but rather “a move to oust the elected chairman and prime minister, bypassing the party’s constitutional procedures and with complete disregard for what the majority of Likud members want.”
Barkat himself had earlier in the day called for a plan to instead hold primaries for a new position of deputy head of the party who would replace Netanyahu if he were forced to take a leave of absence to deal with the indictments against him.
Barkat declared his support for Netanyahu, saying, “We need to stand by his side,” and accused anti-Netanyahu Likud lawmakers of “quite openly coordinating messages with Knesset members from the left, trying to persuade MKs from the Likud to desert and establish a left-wing government.”
Sa’ar in turn issued a statement noting that Barkat was once a member of the centrist Kadima party.
“While I was fighting for a Likud that was left with 12 seats [in the Knesset after the 2006 election], Barkat was sipping champagne at Kadima headquarters where he was a member,” Sa’ar tweeted. He accused Barkat of running an “incitement campaign” against him. “Barkat, listen: You can’t buy Likud members with money, or leadership with zigzags and winks,” Sa’ar wrote of the high-tech millionaire.
Many Likud leaders, including Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein and Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, have been conspicuously silent since Thursday, even refusing to answer direct questions from reporters.
Speaking anonymously, some Likud ministers revealed their disquiet on Sunday, complaining to the Ynet news site that Netanyahu aides were demanding they take public stands against the state prosecution. The report said Netanyahu’s office has asked Likud MKs and cabinet ministers to attend a Tuesday rally at the Tel Aviv Museum that would include calls to investigate Netanyahu’s prosecutors for alleged misdeeds, and would include criticism of the attorney general.
Many said they would not attend, and some said they would, but were uncomfortable about it.
“What’s the headline for this rally?” one senior Likud official asked, according to Ynet. “We’re being asked to come to a protest that will include criticism we disagree with against the prosecution and the attorney general. They’re talking about a ‘coup.’ That doesn’t sit well with everyone.
“The fact that they’re demanding we attend, and that our refusal will be seen as disloyalty, is twisted.”
Another Likud official was more direct. “I can criticize the prosecution, but it’s a very big leap from that to accusing Mandelblit of framing [Netanyahu] or claiming there’s a coup going on,” he said.
Culture Minister Miri Regev, meanwhile, was one of the few to offer full-throated support for Netanyahu on Sunday, telling Channel 12 she was certain the party still backed Netanyahu, and “if there are primaries, Netanyahu will win.”
But, she warned, it was “not the right time” to hold primaries.
One senior Likud minister, Foreign Minister Israel Katz, protested claims that he was among the ministers who have avoided giving full backing to Netanyahu.
“A strange attempt by the media to skew reality by tagging me in the list of ‘silent ones,'” Katz complained in a Twitter post. “From the start I expressed my unreserved support for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as Likud’s candidate for prime minister if there are new Knesset elections, and my opposition to the attempt to oust him through early primaries.”