Netanyahu a no-show as small Likud gathering reaffirms him as unmatched leader

After shelving proposed leadership race, only a fraction of the Likud Central Committee attends vote declaring party will only sit in a government headed by the incumbent PM

A Likud party supporter holds a campaign poster featuring then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu at Jerusalem's Mahane Yehuda market on April 7, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
A Likud party supporter holds a campaign poster featuring then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu at Jerusalem's Mahane Yehuda market on April 7, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu was a no-show Thursday as his party voted to reaffirm its backing for him as its leader and candidate for prime minister.

The Likud Central Committee gathering, which was attended by only a small fraction of its approximately 3,800 members, was scheduled after Netanyahu backed off his proposal last week to call a snap leadership primary, which rival Gideon Sa’ar vowed to contend.

The committee instead approved a measure declaring Netanyahu Likud’s sole candidate for prime minister in the current Knesset and that the party will only sit in a government which he heads, whether for the entire term or under a rotation agreement.

“The proposal was approved in an open vote with a decisive majority of votes,” Likud said.

The party did not give a figure on the vote results, but pictures from the event, which was closed to the press, showed a mostly empty hall.

Less than 10 percent of the committee’s members took part in the vote, according to Army Radio.

“Thanks to members of the Likud Central Committee for the crushing support and the full trust in me and in Likud,” Netanyahu wrote on Twitter.

There was no word on why Netanyahu was absent during the meeting.

The approval of the measure 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 on that.

Netanyahu had mulled a leadership vote, anticipating he would emerge as the clear winner, as a way of bolstering his status as the unchallenged leader of Likud, and 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.

But soon after Likud announced the prospect of a leadership contest, Sa’ar, perhaps the prime minister’s greatest opponent within the party, signaled he would be a contender. “I’m ready,” Sa’ar tweeted.

Netanyahu later walked back the proposal, after 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.

Likud MK Gideon Sa’ar attends a Likud faction meeting at the opening of the 22nd Knesset in Jerusalem, on October 3, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Netanyahu is currently struggling to form a coalition government ahead of a possible third round of elections, but neither he nor opposition Blue and White leader Benny Gantz has a clear path to leading a government. Gantz is likely to be given the task if he fails.

Meanwhile, talks between Netanyahu and Yisrael Beytenu chief Avigdor Liberman over the latter’s proposal for a unity government ended Thursday morning without progress.

Likud and Blue and White have been negotiating a possible power-sharing deal with a rotating premiership, but the two parties have been unable to agree on who would be prime minister first under such an arrangement.

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.

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