Likud’s Sa’ar calls for leadership primaries, declares bid to unseat Netanyahu
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Likud’s Sa’ar calls for leadership primaries, declares bid to unseat Netanyahu

Premier’s chief rival in the party says he will succeed in forming government, ‘uniting country’; Netanyahu supporter Elkin says internal vote will only waste time and energy

Senior Likud party lawmaker MK Gideon Sa'ar speaks during the conference of the Israeli Television News Company in Tel Aviv on September 5, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Senior Likud party lawmaker MK Gideon Sa'ar speaks during the conference of the Israeli Television News Company in Tel Aviv on September 5, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Likud MK Gideon Sa’ar said Thursday that he will demand a Likud leadership race in the event that Israel goes to a third round of elections, arguing that he would succeed in forming a government where Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly failed following two successive elections.

“The right and necessary thing to do is to set up a timetable for Likud leadership primaries. That’s what the Likud constitution says,” declared Sa’ar, Netanyahu’s main rival within the party.

Asked why he believes that he should be Likud’s new chairman, Sa’ar replied: “I think I will be able to form a government and unite the country and the nation.”

The former interior and education minister dodged a question about whether it would be proper for Netanyahu — who is widely expected to be charged with corruption in the coming days — to continue to serve even after he is indicted.

“I won’t speculate about the attorney general’s decision,” he told the Jerusalem Post diplomatic conference on Thursday. “We should wait patiently.”

Earlier Thursday, Likud lawmaker Yoav Kisch also said he backed holding party leadership primaries.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and MK Yoav Kisch (L) converse during a Likud Party faction meeting at the Knesset on January 2, 2017. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

“I don’t see a situation where there won’t be early primaries to determine a party leader. We are a democratic party… there are people who want to run,” he told Army Radio.

Kisch declined to say whom he would support in a party leadership race.

Earlier this week, Netanyahu and Likud’s Central Committee chairman Haim Katz agreed to push for a party decision to not hold primaries for its Knesset roster if new elections are held, and to keep in place the slate it had in both the April and September votes.

Netanyahu last month indicated his intention to hold primaries, but backed away from the idea when Sa’ar indicated he would run against him as leader.

Netanyahu’s failure to form a coalition following the April and September elections has dented his reputation as the invincible prince of Israeli politics.

Sa’ar, who enjoys great popularity among Likud’s voter base, could prove a formidable challenger when the party’s 130,000 card-carrying members vote in a primary.

Even if Netanyahu did win, a bruising leadership battle could hang the party’s dirty laundry out for all to see, after years in which it has mostly managed to tamp down internal dissent even as Netanyahu has faced mounting legal woes.

Later on Thursday, Netanyahu adviser and coalition negotiator Ze’ev Elkin, who serves as the environmental protection minister, downplayed the prospects of a fresh leadership vote, saying it would be a waste of the party’s time and energy.

“If we are going to elections, is it worth it to spend several weeks on internal fighting?” he said in an interview with Israel Radio. “Besides, we had primaries not long ago.”

Another Netanyahu backer, Communications Minister David Amsalem, openly slammed Sa’ar’s lack of “loyalty.”

“This is a time of emergency — not one for internal fights over ego and personal aspirations. If only our friend Gideon Sa’ar could learn about loyalty from members of the bloc,” he said in a Twitter post, referring to the 55-seat parliamentary bloc of right-wing and Haredi parties that backed Netanyahu and helped prevent rival Benny Gantz from forming a coalition over the past two months.

The last Likud primaries for its Knesset slate were held in February. The last leadership primary was held in 2014, however, when Netanyahu won 75 percent of a vote in the party’s Central Committee, to then-MK (now Israeli ambassador to the UN) Danny Danon’s 19%, with 6% abstaining; a 2016 contest was canceled because there were no challengers.

“It’s in the party’s best interest to direct all energy into campaigning for the next general election,” said Elkin.

The prospect of an unprecedented third national election in less than a year became all but assured on Wednesday when Blue and White leader Benny Gantz conceded his failure to cobble together a coalition in the wake of inconclusive September elections. Netanyahu himself had failed to achieve a new coalition the previous month.

Under Israeli law, the Knesset now enters a 21-day period where any lawmaker can try to muster 61 votes that would earn him or her a chance at putting together a government.

Blue and White leader Benny Gantz speaks to the press in Tel Aviv on November 20, 2019. (Jack Guez/AFP)

That means both Gantz and Netanyahu will continue their efforts to find coalition partners and to explore the possibility of a unity government. Dark-horse candidates may also emerge. If they fail, the country would be forced to hold another general election, probably in March.

Opinion polls have indicated a new election would deliver similar results to September’s inconclusive vote, signaling additional months of uncertainty and political deadlock.

The race, however, could be shaken up by the expected indictment of Netanyahu in a series of corruption cases. On Wednesday, Channel 13 reported that Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit has decided to file fraud and breach of trust charges and an announcement could come as soon as Thursday.

Netanyahu is desperate to remain in the prime minister’s post, where he would be best positioned to fight the charges and seek immunity from prosecution from the Knesset. With the exception of the prime minister, Israeli law requires public officials to resign if charged with a crime.

As Netanyahu’s legal woes have mounted, his Likud party has remained firmly behind him. But that could change if there is a formal indictment, and he could begin to face calls to step aside. It also is unclear how voters beyond his political base would react to an indictment.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and then-cabinet secretary Avichai Mandelblit at a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office, in Jerusalem on February 2, 2014. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Last week, Channel 12 reported that the Yisrael Beytenu party had proposed a bill to ease the process of splitting up Knesset factions without risking public campaign funding, in an apparent bid to allow members of Likud to jump ship and join a coalition with Blue and White and Yisrael Beytenu.

Current law dictates that at least a third of a party’s parliamentary faction must split from its main faction in order for the newly-formed faction to still be eligible for campaign funding in the following election. In Likud’s case that would require 11 legislators to break ranks.

The bill by Yisrael Beytenu MK Oded Forer would seek to allow such a split with a lower threshold, the report said. However, it noted that the odds of passing such a bill and convincing enough right-wing MKs to defect were extremely low.

AP contributed to this report.

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