Netanyahu challenger Sa’ar: I’m facing campaign of incitement and threats
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Some in Likud said uneasy about pro-Netanyahu rally Tuesday

Netanyahu challenger Sa’ar: I’m facing campaign of incitement and threats

With 16 days left to avert a third election, would-be Likud leader says Israel’s longest-serving PM has become ‘politically untenable’ due to corruption cases

Senior Likud party member Gideon Sa'ar is seen during a campaign stop at Jerusalem's Mahane Yehuda market, on April 4, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Senior Likud party member Gideon Sa'ar is seen during a campaign stop at Jerusalem's Mahane Yehuda market, on April 4, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Likud lawmaker Gideon Sa’ar, who is challenging embattled Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for leadership of the party, called again on Monday for Likud to hold leadership primaries before the December 11 deadline for new elections.

After both Netanyahu and Blue and White leader Benny Gantz failed to form a coalition following the September 17 election, the country entered a never-before-implemented 21-day grace period in which any sitting MK who can gather together a 61-seat majority in the Knesset gets a chance to cobble together a coalition and become prime minister.

If no MK manages to get 61 votes by the end of the 21-day period, which concludes at midnight on December 11, the country will go to an unprecedented third election within 12 months. Netanyahu also failed to form a government after the April 9 race.

Sa’ar insisted on Monday that unlike Netanyahu, “I’ll be able to form a government in the current Knesset and unite the country.”

Sa’ar’s leadership bid comes after Netanyahu’s 14-year reign as head of the party and more than a decade in the prime minister’s chair. Despite his long rule — he is Israel’s longest-serving premier — Netanyahu has become politically vulnerable as legal troubles in three corruption cases mount.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shaking hands with supporters outside his official residence in Jerusalem on November 23, 2019. (screen capture: Twitter)

On Thursday, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, a Netanyahu appointee, announced he would charge the prime minister with bribery, breach of trust and fraud in the cases against him. The announcement marked the first time in Israel’s history that a serving prime minister faces a criminal indictment.

Netanyahu slammed the decision, vowed to stay on and fight what he called “tainted” and prejudiced investigations, and accused police investigators and prosecutors of plotting an “attempted coup” to bring him down.

“Netanyahu has tremendous achievements to his name,” said Sa’ar, who served as cabinet secretary in Netanyahu’s first government in the 1990s and later as education minister, in an interview with Kan public radio Monday. “He led the fight against the country’s slide down the slippery slope of [the] Oslo [peace process]. That’s why I supported him even when we got just 12 seats [in the 2006 elections], and followed him in countless elections.”

But, Sa’ar continued, “Today he’s politically untenable. He can’t form a government, and unfortunately won’t be able to do so even after a third election. I know it’s hard, but he has to realize that.”

Netanyahu had tried to avoid new primaries, but finally acquiesced on Sunday night to the demand from party activists, led by Sa’ar, for a new leadership contest. In talks Sunday with MK Haim Katz, who chairs the party’s central committee, Netanyahu agreed to hold the contest within the next six weeks.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit holds a press conference at the Justice Ministry in Jerusalem announcing his decision to indict Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, November 21, 2019. (Hadas Parush/FLASH90)

According to Channel 12 news, while the premier “didn’t rule out” agreeing to Sa’ar’s call to hold the leadership contest in the 16 days remaining to avoid general elections, the scenario was seen as unlikely for logistical reasons.

The idea of new elections led by a soon-to-be-indicted party leader has driven some Likud leaders, albeit anonymously, to express growing frustration at Netanyahu’s refusal to step aside.

“If Netanyahu prevents [timely] primaries for technical reasons, he shouldn’t be surprised if someone [else] in Likud suddenly obtains 61 signatures,” one unnamed senior Likud minister told Channel 12 on Sunday.

Even so, Sa’ar’s open challenge to Netanyahu has sparked anger among some of the party faithful. Likud has a long tradition of rallying around its leader; the party has had only four leaders since Israel’s founding in 1948.

“I’m being subjected to a campaign of incitement and vilification against me and my family,” Sa’ar told Kan on Monday, saying some were “threatening violence. Anyone who’s following me on social media sees these threats of violence.”

Supporters of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu demonstrate outside the PM’s Residence following the announcement by Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit that Netanyahu will stand trial for bribery, fraud and breach of trust in three corruption cases, November 21, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/FLASH90)

He vowed that “none of this will prevent me from doing the right thing for Likud and the country. Even if some don’t understand me, they’ll understand me perfectly soon enough, because if we don’t take this path, the original path of our movement, we will find ourselves in a dangerous place.”

Sa’ar slammed the Netanyahu family as the source of the vilification, adding, “You can’t scare me. I sleep very well at night, and I know that I and my family will have to face a lot of slander, but I knew that was part of my return to politics.”

Sa’ar, once Likud’s no. 2, took an abrupt break from politics in 2014 in order, he said, to spend time with his infant son. He announced his return to politics three years later, and in Likud’s February 2019 primary race won the fifth slot on the party’s Knesset list.

Netanyahu sought to sound upbeat on a tour of the northern border on Sunday, insisting the legal turmoil had not hindered his ability to govern.

“I’m doing everything required to ensure the government’s and cabinet’s work is getting done in all the ways required to ensure the safety of Israel’s citizens,” he told a reporter. He insisted he was performing his duties “in the best possible way, out of supreme devotion to Israel’s security,” and that his judgments “are substantive and my decisions have been very good.”

Likud members Gideon Sa’ar (R), Gilad Erdan (2R), Miri Regev (2L) and Ofir Akunis (L) at a Likud party faction meeting in Jerusalem, following the election results, September 18, 2019 (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Notably, asked by one reporter if he would seek parliamentary immunity to avoid prosecution — something he has long been reported to be seeking, but has regularly denied being concerned with — the premier refused to answer.

“Well, now, you’re asking much more complicated questions,” he told the journalist, patting him on the arm and walking away.

Following reports that Mandelblit is set to issue a formal legal opinion on whether Netanyahu, while facing indictment, would be eligible for the task of forming a coalition, Channel 12 on Sunday said the attorney general did not plan to do so immediately.

Sunday also saw intense public feuding between Sa’ar and former Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat, now a senior Likud MK. Barkat, seen as a possible future contender to replace Netanyahu, placed himself firmly in the premier’s camp in the afternoon when he said Sa’ar’s call for primaries “isn’t innocent,” but rather “a move to oust the elected chairman and prime minister, bypassing the party’s constitutional procedures and with complete disregard for what the majority of Likud members want.”

Barkat himself had earlier in the day called for a plan to instead hold primaries for a new position of deputy head of the party who would replace Netanyahu if he were forced to take a leave of absence to deal with the indictments against him.

Nir Barkat (center) with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) during a special cabinet meeting for Jerusalem Day at the Ein Lavan spring in Jerusalem on June 2, 2016. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool)

Barkat declared his support for Netanyahu, saying, “We need to stand by his side,” and accused anti-Netanyahu Likud lawmakers of “quite openly coordinating messages with Knesset members from the left, trying to persuade MKs from Likud to desert and establish a left-wing government.”

Sa’ar in turn issued a statement noting that Barkat was once a member of the centrist Kadima party.

“While I was fighting for a Likud that was left with 12 seats [in the Knesset after the 2006 election], Barkat was sipping champagne at Kadima headquarters where he was a member,” Sa’ar tweeted. He accused Barkat of running an “incitement campaign” against him. “Barkat, listen: You can’t buy Likud members with money, or leadership with zigzags and winks,” Sa’ar wrote of the tech millionaire.

Many Likud leaders, including Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein and Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, have been conspicuously silent since Thursday, even refusing to answer direct questions from reporters.

Speaking anonymously, some Likud ministers revealed their disquiet on Sunday, complaining to the Ynet news site that Netanyahu aides were demanding they take public stands against the state prosecution. The report said Netanyahu’s office has asked Likud MKs and cabinet ministers to attend a Tuesday rally at the Tel Aviv Museum that would include calls to investigate Netanyahu’s prosecutors for alleged misdeeds, and would include criticism of the attorney general.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and Defense Minister Naftali Bennett tour the northern border on November 24, 2019 (Haim Tzach/GPO)

Many said they would not attend, and some said they would but were uncomfortable about it.

“What’s the headline for this rally?” one senior Likud official asked, according to Ynet. “We’re being asked to come to a protest that will include criticism we disagree with against the prosecution and the attorney general. They’re talking about a ‘coup.’ That doesn’t sit well with everyone.

“The fact that they’re demanding we attend, and that our refusal will be seen as disloyalty, is twisted.”

Another Likud official was more direct. “I can criticize the prosecution, but it’s a very big leap from that to accusing Mandelblit of framing [Netanyahu] or claiming there’s a coup going on,” he said.

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