Likud MK Gideon Sa’ar on Thursday vowed to challenge Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as Likud leader when the party eventually holds primaries, and decried alleged efforts to deter him from doing so.
“Personal attacks and slander won’t change my decision,” Sa’ar said at a Sukkot holiday event in Tel Aviv. “The days of [primary] elections without competition have passed.”
Netanyahu earlier this month considered holding a leadership vote, with Sa’ar quickly announcing he was ready to run for the Likud leadership should primaries take place.
The premier subsequently backed away from the proposal and Likud’s powerful Central Committee instead held a symbolic vote reaffirming its backing of Netanyahu as party leader and its candidate for prime minister.
Sa’ar stressed Thursday he stood fully behind Netanyahu as Likud leader and would continue to do so when the mandate for forming a government passes from the incumbent premier to Blue and White party chief Benny Gantz, as is expected next week.
“There is a big difference between backing the chairman of the movement and efforts to delegitimize democratic competition in Likud,” Sa’ar said.
He also voiced support for Netanyahu’s efforts to form a “broad national unity government” that would see Blue and White join a coalition of Likud and its religious allies.
Likud’s approval of the measure reaffirming its support of Netanyahu signaled there would be no leadership race in the immediate future. MK Haim Katz, head of the Likud Central Committee, has proposed scheduling a primary for a year from now, but no final decision has yet been made.
Netanyahu had mulled a leadership vote as a way of bolstering his status as the unchallenged leader of Likud, signaling to other parties hoping for a coup, amid gridlock in forming a government, that there would be no mutiny against him.
It could also have promised him the leadership of the party until the end of the term of the 23rd Knesset — potentially as long as eight years away.
Netanyahu later walked back the proposal, after Sa’ar tweeted “I’m ready” and amid reports that several Likud ministers warned him he had little to gain but much to lose in holding a leadership race.
While Netanyahu enjoys great popularity within Likud, his failure to form a coalition following the April election, and his struggles to do so once again after last month’s vote, have 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.
Netanyahu has previously accused Sa’ar of plotting a “coup” to replace him as Likud leader — a charge denied by Sa’ar. After dropping the proposed leadership primary, a statement sent out in the name of people “close to the prime minister” again took aim at Sa’ar, declaring “the putsch is dead.”
Netanyahu is currently struggling to form a coalition government ahead of a possible third round of elections, but neither he nor Gantz has a clear path to leading a government.
Likud and Blue and White began negotiating a possible power-sharing deal with a rotating premiership, but the two parties were unable to agree on who would be prime minister first under such an arrangement, among other issues, and the talks broke down.
Gantz has refused to sit in a coalition with Netanyahu so long as the prime minister is facing indictment, and has hoped that Sa’ar or another prominent Likud figure might lead a breakaway within the party and join forces with him.