Likud MK Sharren Haskel on Sunday said she would back Gideon Sa’ar, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s sole challenger in the upcoming primary for the party leadership, becoming the fourth lawmaker to publicly endorse him.
Most Likud MKs have announced support for Netanyahu, with a few notable lawmakers keeping mum.
Likud confirmed Thursday that it will hold the contest on December 26. Despite the defections, Netanyahu is expected to defeat Sa’ar handily.
Haskel met with Netanyahu earlier Sunday for a “heart to heart” talk, she said, during which she informed the premier that she intended to back Sa’ar.
“This decision was not an easy one for me, as I greatly admire the prime minister,” she wrote in a statement on her Facebook page.
“On the other hand, within one year we have hit a severe government crisis and a third election, after Likud was twice given the opportunity to form a government, and twice failed,” Haskel said.
“I believe that Gideon Sa’ar will be able to maintain the power of Likud as a leading party, a ruling party. Gideon Sa’ar faithfully represents the principles of Likud, the national-liberal party, and I see in him a partner for the national and liberal values that I was elected to the Knesset for and that I am committed to advancing,” she said. “I’m sure that Gideon Sa’ar will succeed in getting the country out of the political crisis and paralysis that we find ourselves in.”
She said that the primary was an indication that the faction was healthy and democratic, and not cause for alarm. She also said the she had been put under heavy pressure and had received threats of “political elimination” in recent weeks, apparently from Netanyahu supporters.
Earlier Sunday, Likud MK Etty Atia also said she would back Sa’ar in the contest, joining Yoav Kisch and Michal Shir, a former aide to Sa’ar, as the only lawmakers to have publicly expressed support for him.
Likud MK Haim Katz is expected to announce his support for Sa’ar, but has not yet made an official announcement.
Katz is considered a relative heavyweight in the party. He chairs the party’s central committee and holds sway over Likud voters from Israel Aerospace Industries, having helmed its powerful workers union for more than 20 years. IAI, Israel’s largest state-owned company, employs some 16,000 people and is seen as a Likud stronghold closely aligned with Katz.
Sa’ar is expected to hold a meeting for his primary campaign on Monday, with Katz likely to attend, the Walla news site reported.
Senior Likud members Gilad Erdan and Yuli Edelstein are planning to refrain from endorsing a candidate in the primary, channels 12 and 13 both reported Sunday evening, without citing sources.
Erdan, the public security minister, and Edelstein, the Knesset speaker, are considering abstaining due to concerns about their position in the party if Sa’ar wins. Both see themselves as potential successors of Netanyahu but are not yet prepared to challenge him directly.
Erdan met separately last week with Netanyahu and Sa’ar, both of whom requested his support, Channel 12 reported.
The vote marks the first real challenge to Netanyahu’s leadership of the party in 14 years. He and Sa’ar are the only contenders who have announced they will run in the primary.
Sa’ar argues that Netanyahu is divisive and has proved he cannot put together a coalition, after failing following two national elections in April and September.
Many Likud members have criticized Sa’ar over his public challenge of Netanyahu’s leadership, with some even accusing him of “betrayal.”
At a Likud Central Committee summit on December 8, attended by some 800 members, Sa’ar was given a raucous reception, with both cheers from supporters and boos from allies of the premier.
The Knesset dissolved itself last Wednesday night, triggering national elections for the third time in under a year. The Knesset set the date of the elections for March 2.
Netanyahu is widely expected to beat Sa’ar, 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.
Netanyahu faces charges in three criminal cases that include bribery, fraud and breach of trust. The Blue and White party, Likud’s chief rival in the past two elections and in the upcoming March vote, has said it will not serve with a prime minister who is under indictment.
A Sunday Kan public broadcaster poll suggested Likud led by Sa’ar would emerge weaker after the March elections, but the right-wing bloc would be stronger.
Under Netanyahu, Likud would win 31 seats, compared to 35 for Blue and White. Overall, the bloc of religious and right-wing parties would pick up 53 seats, compared to 59 seats for the center-left and Arab parties. Yisrael Beytenu’s Avigdor Liberman would again emerge as kingmaker, with eight seats.
Under Sa’ar’s leadership, Likud would shrink to 27 seats, compared to 34 for Blue and White. But the right-wing bloc would number 56 seats, while the center-left would pick up 57, with Liberman winning seven seats.
A Friday poll showed Likud winning an equal number of seats — 31 — under Sa’ar or Netanyahu, with Sa’ar having an edge in the number of seats won by the right-wing religious bloc overall.
Interviewed by The Times of Israel last week, Sa’ar said that internal polls show him “not far behind” Netanyahu, “and that is even before the race has properly started.”
Meanwhile Sunday, the Central Elections Committee rejected a petition by Sa’ar to block the airing of a four-part TV report on Netanyahu’s career.
The series, “The Days of Benjamin,” is being be broadcast by Channel 12 on Sunday through Wednesday.
In seeking to prevent the airing of the show, Sa’ar argued that it was a form of political campaigning for Netanyahu that gave the incumbent premier an unfair advantage.