Netanyahu rival Sa’ar claims premier in ‘panic’ over his leadership challenge

Likud MK decries attacks on his family: ‘Every day it reaches a new low’; poll says he’s most popular choice to lead party post-Netanyahu, but lags 53%-40% in contest with PM

Likud MK Gideon Sa'ar seen with Likud supporters during an event in the city of Hod Hasharon, November 25, 2019. In the background is a poster of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)
Likud MK Gideon Sa'ar seen with Likud supporters during an event in the city of Hod Hasharon, November 25, 2019. In the background is a poster of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

Likud MK Gideon Sa’ar charged Monday that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was in a “panic” over a party leadership contest, and called on the premier to halt personal attacks involving his family.

Sa’ar on Saturday openly challenged longtime leader Netanyahu for the reins of the party, pushing for a snap primary and saying he could rehabilitate Likud and lead a government instead of Netanyahu. The prime minister, facing criminal charges and stalled coalition talks, agreed Sunday to a leadership contest, though it will likely only be held ahead of expected March elections.

“I recognize panic at the prospect of primaries,” Sa’ar told Channel 13 in a lengthy interview. “The movement does not belong to anyone. Any member has the right to run for its leadership.”

Sa’ar decried frequent personal attacks on him and his family on Twitter by the premier’s son, Yair Netanyahu, including regarding the marriage of his daughter Alona to Arab actor Amir Khoury and the alleged leftist views of his wife, journalist Geula Even-Sa’ar.

“Every day it reaches a new low,” he said. “My daughter’s personal life is none of Yair Netanyahu’s business. The prime minister always said ‘leave my family alone, leave my wife, focus [your attacks] on me.’ Well, I am telling him to tell his son the same thing, because my wife and daughter are being attacked, and both of them are not elected officials in the political sphere.”

He also denounced Netanyahu’s use of official Likud platforms, such as the party’s Twitter account, to attack him.

“That is wrong and indicates a lack of boundaries, and that’s why I call for a clean race in which no candidate will make use of state or party resources,” Sa’ar said. “In such a race, without any limits, I intend to win.”

Sa’ar’s leadership bid comes after Netanyahu’s 14-year reign as party head 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.

Likud MK Gideon Sa’ar seen with Likud supporters during an event in the city of Hod Hasharon, November 25, 2019. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

Sa’ar had sought for a leadership primary to be held before December 11, in order to allow him to try his hand at forming a government before the Knesset is forced to dissolve itself and call 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.

Last 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.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chairs the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem on November 24, 2019. (Sebastian Scheiner/Pool/AFP)

At an event earlier Monday, Sa’ar was heckled by pro-Netanyahu activists and called a “traitor” while he was speaking at an event in the central city of Hod Hasharon.

During his TV interview, Sa’ar downplayed the incident, calling them a vocal minority.

Sources close to Netanyahu told Channel 13: “As the Likud activists clarified today to Gideon Sa’ar at the conference in Hod Hasharon — Likud is a family and you don’t betray your family.”

Sa’ar said a pro-Netanyahu rally planned for Tel Aviv on Tuesday would hurt Likud and not help Netanyahu. “You don’t determine whether a man is innocent at the town square. I don’t see how this can help us politically or help Netanyahu fight his legal battle.”

But he added that the prime minister need not resign over the charges. “It is not moral to oust a prime minister elected democratically because of one prosecutor’s decision,” he said.

He said the reason for his leadership challenge was not legal but political, given the fact that Netanyahu has now twice tried and failed to form a government.

Former prime minister Ehud Olmert speaks during a conference in Tel Aviv, on February 7, 2018. (Flash90)

Asked why he had called on former prime minister Ehud Olmert to resign in 2008 due to similar charges, Sa’ar said that as an opposition lawmaker, he had been fighting to topple a government that “was harming the State of Israel.”

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.

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

Sa’ar is the most popular candidate to replace the current prime minister, according to a poll published Monday by Channel 13.

Asked who they would want to lead Likud after the Netanyahu era, 39.4 percent of party members picked Sa’ar. Next was former Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat with 23.6%, Foreign Minister Israel Katz with 6.2%, Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein with 4.4% and Culture Minister Miri Regev with 2.3%. Meanwhile, 18.6% haven’t yet made up their mind.

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)

However, the poll also predicted a comfortable win for Netanyahu if Sa’ar is his only rival. 53% of Likud members said they would support the incumbent leader, with 40% backing Sa’ar.

The survey was conducted by the Direct Polls institute, which notably is owned by Shlomo Filber, a state witness against Netanyahu in the corruption cases against him. In addition, the company’s methodology — polling respondents by text message — is controversial and considered unreliable.

Sunday saw intense public feuding between Sa’ar and 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.

On Monday, the attorney general ruled Netanyahu can stay on as prime minister while the government is in transition, but did not address whether he can be tasked with forming a new government after elections.

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)

The idea of new elections led by a soon-to-be-indicted party chief 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.

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 — sixth including Netanyahu.

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

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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