Netanyahu agrees to Likud leadership contest if election called

Rival MK Gideon Sa’ar welcomes announcement as part of party’s ‘great democratic tradition’; PM predicts he will achieve a ‘big victory’ in vote

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shakes hands with Gideon Sa'ar during a Likud party meeting at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem on March 11, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shakes hands with Gideon Sa'ar during a Likud party meeting at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem on March 11, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Monday that Likud will hold primaries for the party leadership if a new election is called, answering the call of activists and potential challengers who had urged him to hold a vote.

With coalition talks faltering and elections all but certain, the announcement means Netanyahu will almost certainly face upstart MK Gideon Sa’ar for the leadership of the party, his most serious challenge to the party’s helm in years.

“The prime minister won’t oppose primaries. If there are general elections there will be primaries for the Likud leadership and Prime Minister Netanyahu will have a big victory,” a party statement said Monday night.

Sa’ar, who has pushed for the primary and has been increasingly vocal against Netanyahu, welcomed the announcement.

“I welcome the statement from Prime Minister Netanyahu on holding agreed upon primaries for the leadership of Likud. Likud is the largest political movement in Israel and has a great democratic tradition,” Sa’ar wrote on Twitter.

“We will hold a positive, respectful and clean vote in which I will present clear plans and positions on all policy areas. Likud members will decide,” Sa’ar said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the conference of the Israeli newspaper Makor Rishon at the International Convention Center in Jerusalem, December 8, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The announcement comes a day after Sa’ar was loudly jeered as he called for a primary at a meeting of the Likud Central Committee, which voted to scrap a planned general primary. Netanyahu too was heckled at the event, by some pro-Sa’ar activists.

Netanyahu is widely expected to cruise to victory, 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, but Sa’ar has hammered at Netanyahu’s inability to form a coalition, in trying to convince voters that new blood is needed.

Sa’ar’s bid has drawn broad support from a number of influential Likud mayors, including from the party’s rightist pro-settlement wing, while many of the party’s top officials, including Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, MK Avi Dichter, and Regional Cooperation Minister Tzachi Hanegbi, have remained pointedly mum about who they would support in the event of a leadership contest.

Likud party MK Gideon Sa’ar, during an event in Hod Hasharon, November 25, 2019. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

On Saturday, lawmaker Yoav Kisch joined former Sa’ar aide MK Michal Shir as the only Likud MKs to have publicly endorsed Sa’ar.

Addressing the Likud meeting Monday,  Sa’ar said he was “resolved to run for the party’s leadership out of an understanding that change is needed… to bring the nation out of the ongoing political crisis, form a Likud-led government and unite the people.”

He took issue with his portrayal among Netanyahu allies as disloyal for challenging the longtime party leader.

He added that any leader was fair game for a challenge, even after many years at the top.

Many Likud members have criticized Sa’ar over his public challenge of Netanyahu’s leadership, with some even accusing him of “betrayal.”

In an interview published by the Israel Hayom daily on Monday, former Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat, who is thought to be another potential challenger for the head of the party, accused Sa’ar of “stabbing Netanyahu in the back.”

On Monday, Likud, Benny Gantz’s Blue and White party, and Yisrael Beytenu head Avigdor Liberman traded barbs amid last ditch efforts to form a government and avert a dreaded third round of elections, ahead of a looming Wednesday deadline.

Blue and White party chairmen Benny Gantz speaks a conference of the Makor Rishon newspaper at the International Convention Center in Jerusalem, December 8, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Netanyahu appealed to Liberman to enter 11th-hour negotiations with Likud, a proposal Liberman appeared to swiftly shoot down, saying that Israel “cannot function within the constricted framework of a narrow government, which will put Israel in desperate straits.”

Gantz called on Netanyahu to forgo a bid to seek immunity in the Knesset to enter last-minute talks. Likud responded by calling immunity legislation “an explicit right.”

Netanyahu, who has been charged in a trio of corruption cases, has not yet announced whether he will seek immunity from prosecution, but is widely expected to do so.

Earlier Monday, Blue and White No. 2 Yair Lapid said that he would give up on a rotation agreement for the premiership with Gantz as he sought to bolster the party’s chances in the increasingly likely upcoming election.

Netanyahu’s Likud dismissed the moves by Blue and White as “transparent tricks” and “empty spin.”

Blue and White said in response to the premier’s statement: “The only thing that is transparent is Netanyahu’s desire to lead Israel to an additional round of elections with the sole purpose of seeking immunity. Netanyahu, set Israel free [from yourself].”

Yisrael Beytenu party chairman MK Avigdor Liberman speaks with the media, during a faction meeting in the Knesset, December 2, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Both Netanyahu and Gantz tried and failed to form a government, in the wake of September’s election. Both have expressed their support for a unity government including their respective parties, but talks between them have failed to result in a coalition and they have traded blame for the deadlock.

If no Knesset member receives the support of 61 legislators to try and form a coalition by Wednesday, the Knesset will by law be disbanded and new elections called.

On Monday, the parties agreed that if called, elections would be held on March 2.

Netanyahu has refused to step down and insisted on being prime minister for several months at the start of a rotational agreement, but Gantz has refused to sit in a government under Netanyahu until the premier’s legal status is cleared up.

Recent polls have shown that a new election, the third in less than a year, is unlikely to produce significantly different results from the April and September votes.

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