Senior Likud lawmaker Gideon Sa’ar on Saturday castigated Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for describing the charges against him as an attempted coup, demanded an immediate leadership contest in their ruling Likud party, and claimed he could “easily form a government.”
The Likud lawmaker warned that Netanyahu’s response to the criminal charges announced by Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit on Thursday, in which the prime minister has claimed he is being framed and has demanded that the law enforcement agencies who investigated him should themselves be probed, was irresponsible and dangerous.
“This is not an attempted coup. That is not accurate,” said Sa’ar. “It is not responsible to make this claim. It harms the Likud’s statesmanlike approach. It aims not for reform but to destroy the law enforcement hierarchies.”
“You cannot call a decision by the attorney general an attempted coup,” he insisted, noting that Mandelblit is “a man of integrity” and a Netanyahu appointee. “This is causing chaos in the country,” warned Sa’ar, who himself served as Netanyhu’s cabinet secretary in the 1990s.
He also lamented “this poison, this demonizing of sections of the populace.”
Sa’ar stressed that Netanyahu retains the presumption of innocence, and said he hoped the prime minister can clear his name. He noted, too, that there is no legal impediment to Netanyahu continuing as prime minister at present. “The problem isn’t legal; it’s political,” he said.
He said Netanyahu had proved in the last two elections that he was incapable of winning a majority and should step aside to allow someone else to lead Likud. Only with a new leader, such as Sa’ar himself, could Likud retain power, end the political deadlock, and “save the land of Israel.”
“In the two previous elections, [Netanyahu] could not put together a government. He had complete backing from all of us [in Likud] even though he made mistakes, like dispersing the Knesset [in May],” said Sa’ar. “Does anybody think that in any third, fourth, fifth or sixth elections, he could create a government? Either there’ll be a continuation of this [political] crisis, or heaven forbid, we’ll lose power to our rivals.”
The only one way to save the state from its crisis, and to keep Likud in power, said Sa’ar, was to immediately hold a Likud leadership election.
“I urge the prime minister: allow early primaries; allow a free contest, so that we can ensure Likud retains power, and resolve this [electoral deadlock] crisis that you rightly says is making us a global laughing stock.
He said primaries should be held within two weeks, and that he was turning to the Likud Central Committee Chairman MK Haim Katz to seek his support for the move. This would allow the new leader to try and form a government within the current 21-day period allotted for the Knesset to agree on a prime minister before Israel would be forced to go to new elections.
“If we go to quick primaries, we can have a democratic result, we can save the Likud government,” he said, confidently predicting that he could “easily form a government and unite the nation.”
“There may be others who think they can do so,” he acknowledged. “And if the voters think Netanyahu should [continue as the Likud leader], that would be the decision of the party members.”
Following his remarks, made in an interview on Channel 12, the Likud party released a statement saying that Sa’ar was being typically disloyal.
“It is sad to see that at a time when the prime minister is protecting the country on all fronts and working to preserve the Likud rule, Gideon Sa’ar is, as he usually does, displaying zero loyalty and maximum subversion.”
Sa’ar is so far the only senior Likud lawmaker to challenge Netanyahu. He said Saturday that he had been targeted for years by Netanyahu and his family, “but that doesn’t affect me. My interest is the wellbeing of the state and the [Likud] movement.”
However, Israeli TV reported Friday that several senior Likud lawmakers have been meeting behind the scenes in a bid to try and oust Netanyahu.
Sa’ar did not confirm this but said that things that were being said in private were not being reflected in public statements.
According to a Channel 12 TV report on Friday, which did not cite sources, the senior Likud officials are convinced “the Netanyahu era is over” and are working to try dethrone him as head of the party within the current 21-day period.
Channel 13 reported similar backroom talks, with one unnamed person saying: “We are trying to figure out how to wrest the party from his hands.”
The Channel 12 report said top Likud members know that the only way they will be able to topple Netanyahu, who has held an iron group on the party for more than a decade and populated it with loyalists, will be to unite behind one candidate, but they are showing no sign of being able to do so.
After September’s elections, and failed efforts by Netanyahu and rival Blue and White leader Benny Gantz to muster a majority, the Knesset has three weeks to find a prime ministerial candidate who enjoys the support of 61 MKs. With kingmaker Yisrael Beytenu saying it will not support a narrow government of any kind, and the indictment announcement seemingly killing off any chance of Blue and White agreeing to share power with Netanyahu, a new national poll — the third in less than a year — appears all but inevitable.
But the unnamed senior Likud MKs now hope that they can wrest control of the situation and they are reportedly conducting polls to see who has the best chance.
The Channel 12 report did not name the Likud MKs involved, but noted the “deafening silence” of several top figures like Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan and Sa’ar.
The TV report rated the chance of the move succeeding as low, noting that it would be difficult for the members of the senior Likud hierarchy to set aside their egos and agree on a new leader.
Channel 12 analysts said it would take a dramatic plunge in the polls, or a ruling from the attorney general that Netanyahu was barred from heading a government, to unite the pretenders to his throne.