Likud MK Gideon Sa’ar confirmed Saturday that he would challenge Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for control of the party once a leadership primary is called, but signaled he would back his potential rival until then.
The tweeted statement from Sa’ar, long considered Netanyahu’s chief challenger within the party, came a day after Likud said it would convene its central committee to confirm its unwavering backing for Netanyahu, who is facing indictment and has struggled to form a governing coalition.
“There is no need to convene the Likud Central Committee. No one is denying the role of the Prime Minister as the Likud chairman. When there is a primary for the leadership of the party — as the prime minister himself put forward a few days ago — I will run as a candidate.”
A statement sent out in the name of people “close to the prime minister” responded to Sa’ar’s statement Saturday night by saying that “the putsch is dead,” indicating that the meeting may indeed be scotched.
On Thursday, Likud indicated that Netanyahu was mulling a snap primary meant to confirm his role as the leader of the party. Responding to the announcement, Sa’ar tweeted “I’m ready,” which many took to signal that he would challenge Netanyahu.
But the primary idea was swiftly shelved amid reports that several Likud ministers had warned Netanyahu that he had little to gain but much to lose in holding a leadership primary.
It’s not clear when a primary will be held. According to Channel 12 news, Minister Haim Katz had suggested to Netanyahu holding the primary in a year and using a central committee meeting this week to schedule it.
Culture Minister Miri Regev claimed Thursday night that the primary idea had only been floated as a test balloon to draw Sa’ar out.
Netanyahu has for months claimed that Sa’ar was trying to engineer a party mutiny, and had openly campaigned against him when the party held a non-leadership primary earlier this year.
Sa’ar has for years been seen as a possible successor to Netanyahu and commands a loyal following within the party. Returning to politics after a several-year hiatus earlier this year, the popular former education and interior minister has been careful to toe the party line and line up behind Netanyahu, even as speculation swirled of a possible challenge. His comments on Saturday night were the first time he has confirmed he would run against Netanyahu in a primary.
While Netanyahu enjoys great popularity within Likud, his failure to form a coalition following the April election, and his struggles to do so once again after last month’s vote, have dented his reputation as the invincible prince of Israeli politics.
Likud and Blue and White have been negotiating a possible power-sharing deal with a rotating premiership, but the two parties have been unable to agree on who would be prime minister first under such an arrangement.
Blue and White chief Benny 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.
In the context of his legal battles, Netanyahu is anxious to remain in office as he fights the allegations against him. Under Israeli law, ministers must vacate their posts if charged, but prime ministers can potentially stay on until all appeal processes are exhausted
Likud last held a primary in 2014, though Netanyahu, who has been prime minister for over a decade, has not faced a serious challenge since 2005, when he took over the party from Ariel Sharon, who had left to form the Kadima party.