Earlier Bitan said new election is 'Netanyahu's last chance'

Netanyahu loyalist maneuvers to try to cancel Likud leadership primaries

David Bitan announces he has enough signatures to force secret vote in Likud Central Committee, hours after PM agrees to go up against challenger Gideon Sa’ar

Raoul Wootliff is a former Times of Israel political correspondent and Daily Briefing podcast producer.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Likud MK David Bitan at a Likud faction meeting at the Knesset on November 20, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Likud MK David Bitan at a Likud faction meeting at the Knesset on November 20, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Likud strongman David Bitan announced just after midnight Wednesday that he has enough signatures to call a secret vote on cancelling the party leadership vote, a major setback for MK Gideon Sa’ar who was planning to mount the first serious challenge to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s 14-year hold on the party.

Bitan’s announcement came just minutes after the Knesset dissolved itself, meaning third elections in less than a year are a certainty, and just hours after the Netanyahu and Likud Central Committee Chairman MK Haim Katz had agreed on December 26 as the date for leadership primaries.

“I have reached the number of signatures needed in order to convene the (Likud) Central Committee to hold a secret vote on cancelling the primaries,” Bitan, a Netanyahu loyalist, tweeted.

Hours earlier, Bitan had told Channel 12 TV that the next round of elections would be “Netanyahu’s last chance” to form a coalition. Asked what would happen if the Netanyahu-led right-wing and ultra-Orthodox bloc again failed to win a majority 61 Knesset seats, Bitan said he didn’t “want to get into that” but believed the PM would be successful on the third attempt.

The move appears to be an attempt to outmaneuver Sa’ar, who has pushed for the leadership primary, and prevent a wider vote among Likud members.

Sa’ar had argued that Netanyahu was divisive and proved he could not put together a coalition.

“I will conduct a positive, clean, and issue-driven campaign, and present an agenda for Israel’s future,” Sa’ar said in a statement earlier Wednesday.

“There is a national need for a breakthrough that will end the ongoing political crisis, enable the formation of a strong government, and unite the people of Israel,” he added.

Likud parliament member Gideon Sa’ar visits the West Bank area known as E1 near the Jewish settlement of Ma’ale Adumim, on December 10, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Sa’ar had initially called for the primary to take place during the 21-day period ending Wednesday for MKs to recommend a candidate to form a coalition, saying that it was the only way to break the deadlock between the Likud party and its main rival Blue and White.

With no candidate receiving the support of 61 MKs by midnight Wednesday, national elections were automatically called. Due to various timing conflicts, the Knesset is voting throughout the day on a bill to set the date of the elections earlier, on March 2.

While Netanyahu initially opposed a leadership primary, he agreed this week to hold one after the end of the 21-day period.

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

That announcement came 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 for the party list. Netanyahu too was heckled at the event, by some pro-Sa’ar activists.

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)

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

Sa’ar’s bid has, however, 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.

Interviewed by The Times of Israel on Monday, Sa’ar said that internal polls show him “not far behind” Netanyahu, “and that is even before the race has properly started.”

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