Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused his right-wing rival Gideon Sa’ar on Wednesday of bolting Likud in order to save his political career after the latter announced he was leaving to form a new party aimed at unseating the premier.
Asked during a press conference about Sa’ar’s decision, Netanyahu’s noted his trouncing of the MK in Likud leadership primaries last year. He also claimed internal Likud polls Likud showed Sa’ar slipping down to the 10th-20th slot in party primaries.
“He lost by a huge margin,” Netanyahu said. “A large majority of Likud voters supported me. While I’m busy bringing vaccines and relief to Israel, there are those who are busy saving their political careers.”
Netanyahu also lashed out at Sa’ar for missing a preliminary vote earlier Wednesday on the so-called equality law, which the prime minister and his political allies argue will undercut the Jewish nation-state law.
“This tells you a lot about what camp he belongs to,” Netanyahu said of Sa’ar, who is generally considered to the right of the prime minister on a number of issues.
Sa’ar swiftly hit back at Netanyahu, falsely claiming he voted against the bill.
“Netanyahu looks very stressed tonight,” Sa’ar wrote on Twitter.
He also took a shot at Netanyahu for skipping a separate vote on a bill to require a national referendum be held if Israel withdraws from parts of the West Bank.
The back and forth came after two lawmakers aligned with the coalition’s Blue and White party announced they would join Sa’ar’s new faction in the next elections.
The decision by Yoaz Hendel and Zvi Hauser of Derech Eretz marked the first major pick-up for Sa’ar’s new party, which he launched Tuesday in hopes of attracting support from other disaffected Likud backers and right-wingers unhappy with Netanyahu.
Speaking at the Knesset, the two claimed Netanyahu is focused solely on his personal legal considerations and must be replaced.
“I did everything I could to form and maintain a unity government, but Netanyahu’s legal status dictates the political situation,” Hendel, who heads the two-man faction and currently serves as communications minister, said, referring to the prime minister’s ongoing trial in three separate corruption cases.
Sa’ar issued a statement welcoming the duo, and promising that other prominent figures would follow.
Long seen as Netanyahu’s chief rival within Likud, Sa’ar announced his intention to leave the party at a press conference in which he railed against the prime minister, saying Likud had become a “tool for the personal interests of the person in charge, including matters relating to his criminal trial,” and had fostered “a cult of personality” around Netanyahu.
The potential fallout from Sa’ar’s move was highlighted in a trio of television polls aired Wednesday evening, which indicated Netanyahu would be unable to form a coalition of right-wing and religious parties without Sa’ar.
Israel is widely believed to be hurtling toward elections — the fourth in two years. The Knesset last week gave initial approval to a bill to dissolve the parliament amid a budget crisis and call a new vote. A Knesset committee earlier Wednesday advanced the bill and set elections for March 16, 2021. But the legislation still requires three more plenum readings to be final.