After Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused him of a plot to grab power, Likud party rival Gideon Sa’ar hit back on Monday saying the premier was creating fake news, but insisted he would not be dragged into an internal conflict when the party should be focusing on winning the national election.
The former minister spoke with two radio stations in the wake of Netanyahu’s assault on him the day before, in which the prime minister claimed he had learned Sa’ar was maneuvering behind his back to be tasked with cobbling together the next government if the Likud party wins the upcoming April elections.
Netanyahu’s comments, made on a newly launched Likud internet media channel, came ahead of the party’s primaries, in which the prime minister is expected to secure his position as party leader and Sa’ar is also predicted to place high.
“The prime minister decided to recycle a false plot,” Sa’ar told Israel Radio. “Someone who complains about ‘fake news’ should not create fake news.”
Sa’ar denied that he was seeking to replace Netanyahu and lamented that the prime minister was directing so much attention on him when there were elections to worry about.
“I respect the prime minister as the chairman of the party,” Sa’ar said. “He is our candidate and also mine.
“The main attack in the middle of an election campaign was against me, to harm me in the primaries,” he said. “But I will act like a responsible adult — I will not be drawn into an internal fight at home.”
“These things have no basis and it is a pity that they are being said at this time when we need to direct our efforts against our political rivals in a difficult election campaign,” Sa’ar told Army Radio. “I don’t see how what happened yesterday will help us to win the elections.”
Sa’ar concluded by calling for the names to be revealed of those who were accusing him of plotting.
“Who knows who they are? Perhaps they are my political rivals? I have nothing to fear, I am cleaner than clean,” he said.
On Sunday Netanyahu went after Sa’ar, repeating claims that he planned an internal party putsch to unseat him.
Netanyahu made the accusation during an interview on Facebook with a 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 yet 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 to 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 on graft charges, pending a hearing.
“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.
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 was working to prevent Sa’ar from leading Likud’s electoral slate, Hebrew-language media reported.
Sa’ar announced last December that he was rekindling his political career after a four-year hiatus and was 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.
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.
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 won resoundingly, or a lawmaker from another party, if the margin of victory was 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, Israel 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 was trying to ensure that his preferences placed high on the slate.
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.
Netanyahu has denied wrongdoing in all of the cases.
In Sunday’s quarter-hour webcast on 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.