Likud MK Gideon Sa’ar on Sunday formally asked the party’s top decision-making body to schedule snap leadership primaries as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was reportedly maneuvering to fend off the challenge to his longtime rule over the right-wing party.
Sa’ar publicly challenged Netanyahu after Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit announced Thursday he would charge the prime minister with bribery, fraud and breach of trust in a series of graft probes. The veteran Likud MK on Saturday criticized the premier for describing the indictment as an attempted coup and claimed he could “easily” put together a government following Netanyahu’s failure to do so after two consecutive elections. Blue and White leader Benny Gantz similarly failed to form a coalition after the September vote.
In his request to Likud Central Committee head Haim Katz, Sa’ar asked that the leadership race be held in the next two weeks. This would allow the new leader to try and form a government within the current 21-day period allotted for the Knesset to agree on a prime minister before Israel would be forced to go to new elections, the third in a year.
The leadership race was meant “to prevent the state from lapsing into unnecessary elections that Prime Minister Netanyahu just days ago defined as complete chaos,” Sa’ar said.
Sa’ar noted that Likud held leadership primaries within three weeks in 2002, when then-prime minister Ariel Sharon defeated Netanyahu to remain party leader.
Sa’ar’s move was backed by freshman Likud MK Michal Shir, who told Army Radio the party should be more concerned about its political future than the prime minister’s legal woes.
“We must hold a leadership primary. Immunity [for Netanyahu] is not the important issue right now, we are liable to find ourselves in the opposition,” she told the station.
Netanyahu has led Likud for some 20 years in total and since becoming prime minister in 2009 has held an iron grip on the party, which prides itself on its loyalty and has only had four leaders since its formation in the 1970s.
According to Hebrew media reports Sunday, Netanyahu was seeking to condition a leadership race on the scheduling of general primaries for Likud’s electoral slate, hoping backbenchers would come out against the move for fear of losing their seats.
Likud MK Miki Zohar, a staunch Netanyahu backer, seemingly confirmed the reports.
“The Likud party is a democratic party. Whoever thinks he is worthy is allowed to compete. In accordance with the Likud constitution, the Central Committee members need to decide, but it can’t be that primaries are just held for leadership of the movement,” Zohar told Kan public radio.
“Therefore the decision of the Central Committee members will only be concerning full primaries [leadership and electoral slate],” he added.
Netanyahu was also working to shore up support by having fellow party leaders in his right-wing religious bloc declare him as their only candidate for prime minister, Kan reported.
The 55-MK bloc, which includes Likud and four religious parties, has presented a united front in coalition negotiations and posed a key obstacle in unity talks with Blue and White chief Gantz during his attempts to build a government.
Apart from Zohar, a number of other Likud lawmakers closed ranks Sunday around Netanyahu.
“We should learn from the mistakes of Labor. Their biggest mistake is to remove a leader at every opportunity,” Tourism Minister Yariv Levin, who led the right-wing bloc in coalition talks, told Army Radio.
The Labor party, which in its previous forms led Israel for nearly four decades after its founding, has switched leaders nine times since its last prime minister Ehud Barak left office in 2001.
While saying “now is not the time for primaries,” Culture Minister Miri Regev voiced confidence Netanyahu would win if they are held.
“There is some loyalty that needs to be expressed within the party,” she said in an interview with Army Radio.
While no other senior Likud members besides Sa’ar have come out publicly against Netanyahu, several have declined to issue public statements backing the premier, leading to speculation of a silent mutiny.
Among those are Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan and Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein.
Likud MK Nir Barkat, a former Jerusalem mayor, had remained silent until suggesting Sunday the party hold primaries for acting chairman, who would step in for Netanyahu should the premier takes a leave of absence in light of his legal woes.
Reports carried on Israeli television Friday pointed to backroom rumblings among senior Likud members who were working to dethrone Netanyahu, but were having trouble uniting around a single candidate.
Observers say Netanyahu has managed to hold on to power in the party partially by outmaneuvering and pushing out potential challengers, including Sa’ar, a popular former minister who spent several years in political exile before making a comeback earlier this year.
Despite Netanyahu openly campaigning against him, Sa’ar managed to place fairly high up on the party’s slate in a non-leadership primary earlier this year. He is seen as the most formidable challenger to Netanyahu’s rule in years after Netanyahu easily trounced his opponents in the last two leadership primaries in 2012 and 2015.
Despite having an indictment hanging over him, Netanyahu has vowed to remain prime minister while he fights the charges, though he will likely be forced to give up several ancillary ministries he has held onto in the transitional government.
Calls for Netanyahu to step down have amplified since Mandelblit announced the charges against Netanyahu. On Saturday night, large rallies were held both for and against the prime minister at several locations around the country.
Netanyahu faces charges of fraud and breach of trust in three cases, as well as bribery in one of them. He denies wrongdoing and has dismissed the allegations against him as part of a coup, demanding that the police and prosecution be investigated for wrongdoing.
The attorney general is expected to announce this week whether there is a legal impediment preventing Netanyahu from forming a government in the future.