Hours after Likud members unanimously signed a pledge of loyalty to him, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday night continued to insinuate that there was a plot against him within his party, which he claimed was being pushed by his rivals, Avigdor Liberman and Yair Lapid.
The comments came a day after Liberman, the leader of the right-wing Yisrael Beytenu party, said he would turn to a different Likud lawmaker after the elections if Netanyahu rejected his efforts to form a unity government. Liberman, whose party is currently forecast to be coalition kingmaker after the September 17 vote, outlined a scenario in which Netanyahu could be ousted as head of the ruling party if he rejected Liberman’s proposed government involving Likud, Yisrael Beytenu and Blue and White. Lapid, Blue and White’s number 2, then said his party was indeed in talks with Likud members about a possible successor to Netanyahu.
On Sunday evening, at an event with Likud members in the southern resort city of Eilat, Netanyahu alleged, “They really want to destroy democracy, because they have a shady plot.
“What is the shady plot? Lapid, Liberman, a few others, they have a shady plot. I wouldn’t be surprised if it is also some of us from the right as well,” he continued. “What’s the plan? They want to fulfill their ambition to be prime ministers, but they have a problem because the public is choosing Likud.”
Lapid responded by taunting the premier in a tweet: “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean we’re not after you.”
Earlier Sunday, the Likud said its top 40 candidates for the upcoming elections had signed a pledge offering their unequivocal support for Netanyahu and stating they have no intention of replacing him after the elections.
“We, the undersigned, candidates for Likud for the 22nd Knesset, emphasize that we will not be dictated to by any other party. Regardless of the election results, prime minister and Likud chairman Benjamin Netanyahu is the only Likud candidate for prime minister — and there will be no other candidate,” stated the pledge, which was pushed by Likud MK David Bitan.
Likud said the pledge was signed by Nos. 2-40 on its electoral slate. Netanyahu is number one.
“Thanks to Likud members for their unequivocal support of me. Likud is more united than ever,” Netanyahu tweeted.
Bitan, who earlier warned the party would publicly out any lawmaker who refused to sign the pledge, called the letter “an answer to the libelous spin of Blue and White and Yisrael Beytenu.”
However, a television report Sunday evening suggested that, despite the pledge, senior members of the party were privately saying that if Netanyahu failed again to cobble together a coalition after the September elections, they may reconsider their stance.
A senior Likud source was quoted by Channel 12 as downplaying the significance of the loyalty pledge, saying that should the coalition talks again become deadlocked, as they were after the April elections, Likud members would be forced to “make difficult decisions.”
In his comments Saturday, Liberman floated Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein as a Likud member who could replace Netanyau, prompting Edelstein to declare the premier was the “sole Likud candidate for prime minister.”
However, Channel 13 reported Sunday evening that Edelstein and his associates have in recent weeks been discussing with Likud MKs and ministers scenarios for the day after Netanyahu’s departure.
According to the report, Edelstein views himself as a candidate to succeed the longtime premier and has lately scheduled meetings with MKs he hasn’t met in a long time and touted the result of a survey conducted by the Makor Rishon newspaper that found him to be very popular.
Edelstein’s office said the report was “baseless from start to finish” and an attempt to “drive a wedge” within Likud and discredit the Knesset speaker.
Likud repeatedly lashed out Sunday at Liberman, Lapid and Blue and White leader Benny Gantz, accusing all of them of running their respective parties as “dictatorships” because they do not hold internal primaries.
The events of the last two days have added fresh fuel to Liberman’s feud with Netanyahu, who is campaigning to pick off supporters from the Yisrael Beytenu leader’s base of immigrants from the former Soviet Union.
Once a political ally, Liberman refused to join a Netanyahu-led government after the elections in April unless a bill formalizing exemptions to mandatory military service for seminary students was passed without changes, a demand rejected by the prime minister’s ultra-Orthodox partners.
That impasse helped trigger the fresh vote, as, without Yisrael Beytenu, Netanyahu was one seat short of a ruling majority.
Liberman has vowed to push for a unity government of his party, Likud and Blue and White that does not include ultra-Orthodox factions if no one can form a coalition after the elections without Yisrael Beytenu.
Likud has dismissed the idea of a unity government, declaring it will seek a coalition with right-wing and religious parties, while Blue and White has voiced support for such a coalition if it does not include Netanyahu, who is facing pending corruption charges.
Alexander Fulbright contributed to this report.