Netanyahu steps up attacks on Likud rival Sa’ar ahead of primary

In debut of Likud TV channel, PM repeats accusation that former minister wants to form government after elections; Sa’ar calls claim ‘baseless’

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) speaking with then-Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar in the Knesset, October 16, 2012. (Miriam Alster/Flash 90/File)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) speaking with then-Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar in the Knesset, October 16, 2012. (Miriam Alster/Flash 90/File)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday went after a rival in his Likud party, repeating claims that former minister Gideon Sa’ar planned an internal party putsch to unseat him.

Netanyahu made the claim during an interview on Facebook with a propaganda channel for his Likud Party, which launched Sunday.

“Sa’ar’s exercise will not succeed. Democracy will not let this happen,” the prime minister told the Likud Party TV web channel.

The comment was the most open attack from the prime minister on Sa’ar, a former top minister, who recently announced his return to the party, underlining inter-party squabbling ahead of Likud’s February 5 primary.

In an interview, Netanyahu claimed Sa’ar approached a number of people within the Likud party and asked them to throw their support being him so that he would be tasked to form a government after April’s elections — due to the expected announcement by the attorney general to indict the prime minister, pending a hearing.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appearing on Likud TV on Facebook, February 3, 2018. (screen capture: Facebook)

“I didn’t invent this. More than two or three people in the Likud party came to me and said that Sa’ar had approached them and asked for their support. ‘Here is what I am planning. After the elections, they will not put the formation of a government onto Netanyahu — they will say that he is in a hearing [prior to an indictment], so they will need somebody else from the Likud party and I am asking for your support,'” Netanyahu claimed.

Gideon Sa’ar speaks at a Likud party conference in Lod, on December 31, 2017. (Tomer Neuberg/ Flash90)

The prime minister added that any attempt to task Sa’ar with forming a government would be “against the will of the voters, and the will of the voters is growing.”

Following the interview, sources close to Netanyahu said the premier is working to prevent Sa’ar from leading Likud’s electoral list, Hebrew-language media reported.

Sa’ar responded to the accusation, saying the prime minister had chosen to attack him now to harm his chance of success in the party’s primaries on Tuesday, adding that the claims are “baseless” and that he will not get involved in an internal battle in the party.

“Unfortunately, two days before the primaries, the prime minister chose to try and recycle the false plot he made for the first time a few months ago,” Sa’ar wrote on Twitter. “The goal is transparent: an attempt to hurt me in the primaries. Likud members are smart and know very well that these things are baseless. On the eve of critical elections for the Likud party and Israel, I will act as a responsible adult and will not get dragged into an internal war.”

Sa’ar announced last December that he will be rekindling his political career after a four-year hiatus and running for a spot on the ruling Likud party’s slate in the upcoming April 2019 elections.

The former education minister and interior minister is seen as a potential challenger to Netanyahu from within the ruling party. He quit politics in 2014 amid reported tensions with the prime minister, but said in 2017 that he would return and run in the next party primaries.

Last October, Netanyahu accused Sa’ar of plotting behind the scenes to replace him as premier. According to a report in the pro-Netanyahu Israel Hayom daily, Sa’ar hoped to convince the president after the elections to task Sa’ar with forming a government.

The accusation spurred legislation that would force the president to choose only among party leaders when tasking someone to form a government, though the bill was not passed before the Knesset was dissolved.

President Reuven Rivlin speaks during a ceremony awarding people who donate to the fight against human trafficking at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem on December 2, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)

According to the October report, President Reuven Rivlin was 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.

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 who 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.

Sa’ar dismissed the Israel Hayom report at the time as a “ridiculous conspiracy theory.” Rivlin also dismissed it in unusually strong terms, calling it “paranoia.”

On Sunday, Yisrael Hayom reported that the prime minister had drawn up a list of his own recommendations for his party’s slate, which left off Sa’ar, Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein and others, and via backroom deals is trying to ensure his preferences place high on the slate.

At the same time, Netanyahu is actively working to prevent a number of prominent lawmakers from returning to parliament, the report said.

The report said that the prime minister was trying to block success for Sa’ar, but the Likud party said in response that the Israel Hayom report was “no more than speculation.”

On Friday, the attorney general announced he would not delay an announcement on Netanyahu’s cases until after the election, as Netanyahu’s legal team had requested.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit speaking with Hadashot TV news, in footage broadcast on January 18, 2019. (screen capture, Hadashot news)

Avichai Mandelblit is expected to publish his conclusions on the three cases within the next few weeks.

Netanyahu has denied wrongdoing in all of the cases.

In Sunday’s quarter-hour webcast of the Likud channel, Netanyahu touted his accomplishments as prime minister in the past 10 years. He claimed credit for stopping Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, called Israel an energy superpower, argued that the last decade was “the most successful” for national security in Israel’s history, and said his ruling Likud party was “the only democratic party” in the country.

Notably absent from the interview was any mention of prime minister’s legal problems.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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