Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu struck out at former minister Gideon Sa’ar Wednesday, accusing the once close ally from his Likud party of plotting behind the scenes to replace him as premier.
The comments came after a report in the pro-Netanyahu Israel Hayom daily said the prime minister has put off moving up Knesset elections scheduled for next year amid fears that President Reuven Rivlin could task someone else with forming a government.
According to the daily, the reported plot would have seen Rivlin instead choose Gideon Sa’ar, a popular former Likud minister seen as a potential challenger to Netanyahu from within the ruling party.
Speaking at a birthday party thrown for him, Netanyahu said he has been aware of the alleged scheme for weeks and jokingly called it the “conspiracy of the century.”
“I have known for a few weeks that a former Likud minister is talking to coalition sources and has concocted a subversive maneuver,” he said, without naming Sa’ar.
Netanyahu alleged the scheme would see him “win a sweeping victory in the elections,” after which the alleged plotters would work to replace him as prime minister.
He said this would be “against the will of the Likud voters, the wishes of the public and democracy.”
Netanyahu said, however, the scheme was doomed from the get-go, and claimed he has never had such high levels of support since entering politics.
“But this did expose a breach in the law and we’ll think about what to do with this,” he said.
Sa’ar, who left politics in 2014 before announcing his comeback last year, earlier dismissed the Israel Hayom report as a “ridiculous conspiracy theory.”
“I usually do not deal with false claims, especially since there is no one willing to stand behind things and say them in their own voice,” the former Likud minister tweeted. “But since my name has been mixed up in this, I want to announce in the clearest possible way: The things that were published are unfounded. They are totally baseless. It concerns me that there are those who whisper such nonsense in the prime minister’s ear.
“We await patiently a shred of evidence to confirm this ridiculous conspiracy theory,” he added.
Later Wednesday, Sa’ar said he would not comment further on the matter and limited himself to wishing Netanyahu a happy birthday.
Sa’ar was a rising star in Likud until he took a timeout from politics. Analysts consider him a top contender for the premiership in a post-Netanyahu era, and he continues to enjoy high popularity among Likud activists.
Sa’ar has expressed the intention to run for the leadership, not only of the Likud, but of the entire country.
Rivlin also dismissed the report in unusually strong terms, calling it “paranoia.”
Israel Hayom is seen as close to Netanyahu and owner Sheldon Adelson is a major backer of the prime minister.
The report provoked strong emotions among lawmakers, with an MK from the opposition Zionist Union holding up a copy of the newspaper at the Knesset plenum as she accused Likud members of “inciting against the president.”
“This is a disgrace and if it came from the Prime Minister’s Office, the prime minister himself, in his voice, needs to come here and defend the president of the State of Israel,” head of the opposition Yesh Atid party Yair Lapid said.
According to the report, Netanyahu recently told associates that he had decided to delay calling elections until he can complete consultations on the alleged plot, including examining the possibility of a change in the law that would limit the president’s power to choose who will form the government.
The next elections must take place by November 2019, but recent reports have suggested that Netanyahu is considering taking the country to the polls as early as next March amid a series of corruption investigations involving him.
Under current law, after elections, the president consults with the heads of all factions before asking the lawmaker deemed to have the best chances of forming a government to begin negotiations with potential coalition partners. The person tasked with forming a government is generally the one that receives the most recommendations from other parties, and is usually — but not necessarily — the head of the party that has won the largest number of seats.
According to the report, Rivlin has been mulling the possibility of tasking someone other than Netanyahu with forming the government — another MK within Likud, if the party wins resoundingly, or a lawmaker from another party, if the margin of victory is narrower — in light of the ongoing corruption investigations against the prime minister.
Coalition chairman David Amsalem (Likud) said that in the coming days, he would propose a change in the law that would prevent such a maneuver.
“The head of the party is the most dominant person and the one who usually brings the votes to the party,” Amsalem told Israel Hayom. “The idea that we can bypass him and appoint someone else in his place after the election is a kind of coup. I intend to bring forward a bill by which the president will put the responsibility for forming a government on the head of the party that receives the most recommendations.”
“There is a gap in the law regarding presidential authority in the forming of a government, and it needs to be fixed,” Tourism Minister Yariv Levin told the Kan public broadcaster.
In 2009, Netanyahu became prime minister after Tzipi Livni was unable to form a coalition, despite her Kadima Party winning the most seats.