Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Likud Central Committee Chairman MK Haim Katz agreed Wednesday that the party would hold a primary for its leadership on December 26, if new elections are called, Likud said in a statement.
With coalition talks having faltered and fresh national elections all but certain, the announcement means that Gideon Sa’ar, the first real challenger to Netanyahu’s leadership in 14 years, will have just over two weeks to mount a race.
The Likud Central Committee will meet Thursday at 7 p.m to vote on the proposal to hold the primary on December 26.
Sa’ar, who has pushed for the leadership primary and has been increasingly vocal against Netanyahu, welcomed the announcement.
“I will conduct a positive, clean, and issue-driven campaign, and present an agenda for Israel’s future,” he said in a statement.
“There is a national need for a breakthrough that will end the ongoing political crisis, enable the formation of a strong government, and unite the people of Israel,” he added.
Sa’ar had initially called for the primary to take place during the 21-day period ending Wednesday for MKs to recommend a candidate to form a coalition, saying that it was the only way to break the deadlock between the Likud party and its main rival Blue and White.
If no candidate receives the support of 61 MKs by midnight Wednesday, national elections will automatically be called. Due to various timing conflicts, the Knesset is voting throughout the day on a bill to set the date of the elections earlier, on March 2.
While Netanyahu initially opposed a leadership primary, he agreed this week to hold one after the end of the 21-day period.
“The prime minister won’t oppose primaries. If there are general elections there will be a primary for the Likud leadership and Prime Minister Netanyahu will have a big victory,” the Likud said in a statement Monday night.
That announcement came a day after Sa’ar was loudly jeered as he called for a primary at a meeting of the Likud Central Committee, which voted to scrap a planned general primary for the party list. Netanyahu too was heckled at the event, by some pro-Sa’ar activists.
Netanyahu is widely expected to beat Sa’ar in the primary, with sky-high support inside Likud despite charges in a trio of corruption cases against him. The party, which has only had four chiefs since the country’s founding, is seen as fiercely loyal, though Sa’ar, trying to convince voters that new blood is needed, has hammered at Netanyahu’s inability to form a coalition.
Sa’ar’s bid has, however, 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 in the event of a leadership contest.
Interviewed by The Times of Israel on Monday, Sa’ar said that internal polls show him “not far behind” Netanyahu, “and that is even before the race has properly started.”
He will now have just 15 days to close that gap.