Likud MK Gideon Sa’ar on Thursday stepped up his rhetoric against his party leader, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, accusing the premier of “wild incitement” and “bullying” against him.
In an interview with the Ynet news site, Sa’ar, a popular former education minister and former party No. 2, also lashed out against “spineless” Likud lawmakers who have been publicly backing Netanyahu, but are allegedly also planning to run for the party’s leadership in the primary.
Likud’s Central Committee is to meet Sunday to begin the process of planning and scheduling the party primary, officials said Wednesday, with Sa’ar expected to pose the first real challenge to the premier’s leadership in 14 years.
Netanyahu spokesman Jonatan Urich sent a brief note to the press explaining that “the decision as to [whether to hold] primaries for the chairmanship of Likud will be taken later — if and when we are forced to go to elections.” A Channel 12 report, apparently contradicting Urich, said the party would set the leadership race for December 22 — assuming no government is formed by December 11 and new elections are called.
Sa’ar announced last month he would demand a primary race and would run to unseat the scandal-plagued Netanyahu. He has shied away from criticizing the prime minister over his legal troubles, but has argued instead that Netanyahu’s inability to decisively win the last two elections proved the party needed new blood at the top.
His 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.
At an event last week, 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.
The party’s official spokesman also went on the attack, saying Sa’ar should have listened to the hecklers who “made it clear to him ‘Likud is a family and family you don’t betray.’”
“We are reaching a very dangerous situation,” Sa’ar said in his Thursday interview. “All this incitement is coming from the prime minister, and he has never said a word against it. Wild incitement is being conducted on his behalf on social media on a scale that in unprecedented in the State of Israel.”
Sa’ar said that under Netanyahu, Likud could not continue to rule Israel, saying that if the prime minister will remain at the party’s helm, either the current deadlock will continue, or “we will gift the leadership to our political rivals.”
Sa’ar blasted Likud’s proposal during coalition negotiations for Netanyahu to serve as prime minister for six months, following a premier from the Blue and White party for two years.
“That means we are willing to hand the leadership even to our rivals, but not to another person within Likud,” he charged.
Sa’ar also denounced as “spineless” senior Likud MKs who prevented party primaries from taking place at a time that could have prevented fresh elections from being called, without naming them. He accused them of putting “personal interest before the interest of the state and the movement.”
Sa’ar, who took a hiatus from politics in 2014 and returned ahead of April’s elections, said: “I didn’t return to the political arena to be a choir boy and I won’t be a choir boy. I will fight for my truth until the end.”
December 11 marks the deadline for forming a government in the current Knesset. If no government is formed by then, the 22nd Knesset will be forced to go to new elections sometime in late February or early March.
That unprecedented third election within a year is looking increasingly likely. Unity talks between Likud and Blue and White remained stalled on Wednesday, with neither Netanyahu nor Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz able to form a government following two inconclusive elections in April and September, nor to hammer out a power-sharing agreement between them.
The unprecedented political gridlock — April’s election was the first in Israel’s history that did not produce a government — has propelled the first serious challenge to Netanyahu from within the party’s ranks since he took over as leader from Ariel Sharon in late 2005.
Sa’ar’s supporters have argued that with him at the helm, Blue and White’s campaign promise not to join a coalition with a Likud premier under indictment would be rendered moot, and the path would be cleared out of the nearly year-long political gridlock. Netanyahu has led an interim government since the 20th Knesset voted to go to elections in late December 2018.
But polls have not favored Sa’ar’s bid, with a Channel 12 survey this week showing Likud dropping from 33 seats to 26 if Sa’ar replaces Netanyahu, with the lost votes going mostly to smaller right-wing parties.
The current Likud slate was elected by some 70,000 of the party’s 120,000 members in February, and those lawmakers have scarcely had a chance to serve as MKs since that race.
Netanyahu is said to be taking Sa’ar’s challenge seriously. He spent much of Tuesday huddled with political supporters and advisers at Likud headquarters on King George Street in Tel Aviv, the Kan public broadcaster reported. The discussions dealt with logistics and procedures, and were meant to lay the groundwork for leadership primaries sometime after December 11.
Last month, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit announced criminal charges against Netanyahu in three corruption probes, including bribery in one of them. Netanyahu denies all wrongdoing.