Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is considering holding “lightning primaries” for the leadership of his Likud party in an attempt to quell rumors of a possible coup against him from its senior members, the party said Thursday amid an ongoing deadlock in coalition talks.
The announcement prompted a bombshell response from Likud MK Gideon Sa’ar, who said that he was “ready” for a potential leadership challenge. Such a battle would mark the first challenge to Netanyahu from within his own party in five years and the most serious such challenge in a decade.
“The aim of the move is to shatter the illusion of a Likud rebellion, which hinders [other parties] from joining a unity government,” the ruling party said in a statement, which came after talks between Netanyahu and Yisrael Beytenu chief Avigdor Liberman over the latter’s proposal for a unity government ended after barely an hour and did not make any headway.
In response to the announcement, ex-Likud education mnister Sa’ar indicated he would challenge Netanyahu for the party leadership. “I’m ready,” he tweeted tersely.
Asked to elaborate as he arrived at the Knesset for the swearing-in of parliament on Thursday afternoon, Sa’ar first ducked reporters’ questions, but then said he had made his position clear and would say more “when there’s a need” to do so.
Sa’ar is a longtime rival of the prime minister’s. Netanyahu earlier this year accused Sa’ar of planning a “putsch” against him, a claim Sa’ar called “fake news.” The prime minister sought to keep Sa’ar off the Likud’s Knesset slate, but the former education minister won widespread support to secure a leading slot in elections for the slate in February, and is No. 6 on the Likud list in the incoming Knesset.
Sa’ar has also been a critic of some of Netanyahu’s reported efforts to secure immunity from prosecution in the corruption investigations against him.
Sa’ar’s two-word tweet on a possible leadership challenge marks a potential bombshell amid Israel’s current deadlocked political reality. Neither Netanyahu nor rival Blue and White leader Benny Gantz has a clear path to a Knesset majority. Netanyahu is currently trying to muster a coalition, without success. Gantz is likely to be given the task if he fails. Gantz has refused to sit in a coalition with Netanyahu so long as the prime minister is facing indictment, and has been hoping that Sa’ar or another prominent Likud figure might lead a breakaway within the party and join forces with him.
Likud MK Michal Shir said early Wednesday afternoon that “if there are indeed primaries” for the party’s leadership, she would back her former boss Sa’ar. By contrast, Foreign Minister Israel Katz pledged his firm support for Netanyahu in any leadership battle.
At a Likud party meeting later Wednesday afternoon, Netanyahu made no mention of a possible leadership primary in brief remarks before journalists were asked to leave. He said he was making efforts to muster “a wide unity government” and accused Gantz of seeking to subvert democracy in a bid to win power. Gantz “is trying to escape [heeding] the will of the people,” he charged, referring to the Blue and White leader’s refusal to sit in government with him while he faces possible indictment for corruption.
He was quoted telling his colleagues later in the meeting that a Likud leadership primary was indeed needed as soon as possible, to thwart Blue and White’s efforts to break up the party. “I am putting myself up for election,” he was quoted saying.
He told Army Radio later that he’d announce a decision “very soon.” Netanyahu was last elected Likud leader in 2014, winning 75 percent of a vote in the party’s Central Committee, to (then MK, now Israeli ambassador to the UN) Danny Danon’s 19%, with 6% abstaining; a 2016 contest was cancelled because there were no challengers.
President Reuven Rivlin has proposed a unity government between Netanyahu’s Likud and Benny Gantz’s centrist Blue and White party in which power would be equally divided, with Netanyahu and Gantz each serving two years as prime minister. Rivlin has also implied that Netanyahu could take an open-ended leave of absence if or when he is indicted in one or more of the three criminal probes in which he faces charges, including one count of bribery, pending a hearing.
Under the arrangement set out by Rivlin, Gantz, as “interim prime minister” in such a scenario, would enjoy all prime ministerial authority. A legal change to the position of “interim prime minister” would theoretically allow Netanyahu to take a leave of absence if he is formally charged and enable Gantz to avoid serving in a government with a prime minister who is under indictment.
But the two parties have been unable to agree on who would be prime minister first under such an arrangement, among other issues. Blue and White has said it would agree to a unity government with Likud if Netanyahu was not at the helm.
Netanyahu has not said he would step down if charged, and, under Israeli law, may not be required to do so. Many legal scholars believe a prime minister could remain in power even if convicted, and would only be required to resign once all appeal processes were exhausted. Blue and White has said that it will not partner with Likud in a coalition unless Netanyahu steps down.
On Wednesday, at the first of Netanyahu’s pre-indictment hearings, his defense team presented state prosecution officials with new arguments and fresh evidence in the cases, which they asserted “completely contradict the claims in the charge sheet.” The hearing continued Thursday.
In August, before September’s election, Netanyahu sought and obtained a signed commitment from the party’s top Knesset candidates saying that they are united behind him and do not intend to replace him. That move came a day after one of Netanyahu’s top rivals said he could try to forge a coalition government after elections with someone else in the party if the prime minister refused to play ball.
Netanyahu required the top 40 candidates for the Knesset to a sign a declaration of loyalty, reading: “We, the undersigned, candidates on the Likud list 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 chair Benjamin Netanyahu is the only Likud candidate for prime minister, and there will be no other candidate.”
The party said at the time that said the purpose of the initiative was to stop “spin” from rivals who said they were talking to Likud members about replacing Netanyahu.
A month earlier, Gantz had said that he was “in talks with Likud’s representatives” about the possibility of forming a national unity government without Netanyahu following the election.
Sa’ar, a popular former minister, has been derided by Netanyahu since his return to politics earlier this year over alleged plans to take the reins of the Likud party from him.