Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s challenger for the leadership of Likud, MK Gideon Sa’ar, was given a raucous reception Sunday, as he spoke at a meeting of the party’s Central Committee, with cheers from supporters and boos from allies of the premier.
Some 800 committee members met to vote on whether to cancel primaries for the party’s Knesset slate in the event of new elections being called this week. The motion was approved. Meanwhile primaries for leadership of the party will be set at a later date if an election is announced.
Addressing those in attendance, Sa’ar said he was “resolved to run for the party’s leadership out of an understanding that change is needed… to bring the nation out of the ongoing political crisis, form a Likud-led government and unite the people.”
He took issue with his portrayal among Netanyahu allies as disloyal for challenging the longtime party leader.
הליכוד היתה ותהייה התנועה הדמוקרטית ביותר בישראל. התמודדות היא חובה ולא "פוטש". גם נתניהו ידע זאת כשהתמודד מול יו"ר הליכוד שרון וגם מאות חברי המרכז שהריעו לדבריו של גדעון סער יודעים זאת. חייבים להציל את שלטון הימין ויש רק אחד שיוכל להקים ממשלת ליכוד. pic.twitter.com/QHxqfnymEF
— Michal Shir – מיכל שיר (@ShirMichal) December 8, 2019
“Attempts to delegitimize and slander any who wish to run go against the democratic character and traditions of Likud,” he said. “A democratic contest strengthens, rather than weakens, the movement.”
He added that any leader was fair game for a challenge, even after many years at the top.
Many Likud members have criticized Sa’ar over his public challenge of Netanyahu’s leadership, with some even accusing him of “betrayal.”
Sa’ar’s bid has 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.
On Saturday, lawmaker Yoav Kisch joined former Sa’ar aide MK Michal Shir as the only Likud MKs to have publicly endorsed Sa’ar.
Netanyahu, speaking later, said he was making “a final effort to prevent [an election]. But if it is forced upon us, we’ll go forward and win big.”
Both Netanyahu and Blue and White party lead Benny Gantz tried and failed to form a government in the wake of September’s election. Both have expressed their support for a unity government including their respective parties, but talks between them have failed to result in a coalition and they have traded blame for the deadlock.
If no Knesset member received the support of 61 legislators to try and form a coalition by Wednesday, December 11, the Knesset would by law be disbanded and new elections called.
Recent polls have shown that a new election, the third in less than a year, is unlikely to produce significantly different results from the April and September votes.
On Saturday, Netanyahu said he would support solving the deadlock with a direct vote for the premiership, pitting himself against Gantz.
Sa’ar criticized the move, telling Kan radio it “has no chance of passing in the few days left for this Knesset, assuming no government is formed.” He added: “We shouldn’t hastily change the system of governance to try and solve a momentary political situation.”
While a direct election for prime minister would automatically determine who would form the government, it would not change the coalition arithmetic, and the winner would still need to form a coalition from the same parties elected in September.
Israel briefly experimented with direct elections for prime minister in the 1990s — Netanyahu’s first election to the premiership, when he defeated Shimon Peres in 1996, was also Israel’s first direct election for prime minister.
However, it reverted back to voting for parties, rather than individuals, five years later because it proved too hard to form a coalition following the vote.
“Likud always objected to the idea of direct elections, it caused great damage and was rightly canceled after several years,” Sa’ar argued. “When [former prime minister Ehud] Olmert tried to change the regime system after his failure in the  Second Lebanon War, Netanyahu told him that a system of governance isn’t like socks, which you change every day.”
The proposal for direct elections would likely face a formidable legal challenge from the High Court of Justice as it would entail sweeping reforms by a caretaker government during an election campaign.
Blue and White responded Saturday night to Netanyahu’s statement, saying, “We are engaged in preventing costly and unnecessary elections and not hollow spins to restore a system of elections that… failed miserably.”
Raoul Wootliff contributed to this report.