2 settler leaders back Sa’ar as cracks in Netanyahu’s armor begin to show

Samaria Regional Council chairman and head of Likud settler lobby, Yossi Dagan, thanks Netanyahu but says he won’t be able to form government, backs rival

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent

(From R-L) Former Likud MK Gideon Sa'ar and Samaria Regional Council chairman Yossi Dagan at a protest tent outside the prime minister's residence in Jerusalem on October 29, 2017. (Miri Tzachi)
(From R-L) Former Likud MK Gideon Sa'ar and Samaria Regional Council chairman Yossi Dagan at a protest tent outside the prime minister's residence in Jerusalem on October 29, 2017. (Miri Tzachi)

A prominent settler leader declared his support for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud rival MK Gideon Sa’ar on Tuesday, calling for the scheduling of a party leadership primary in light of the ongoing political stalemate which has prevented the formation of a government.

Samaria Regional Council chairman Yossi Dagan added his name to a small, but growing list of Likud municipal leaders who have tepidly endorsed Sa’ar as the prospect of the year’s third election grows.

Dagan called Netanyahu “one of Israel’s great leaders” in a post to his Facebook page.

“However, we must remember that the continued rule of the entire national camp is in tangible danger,” argued Dagan, who established the “My Likud” pro-settler branch of the right-wing party that enlisted hundreds of new members from beyond the Green Line.

“In the reality that has been created, and since it seems impossible to form a government, leadership primaries must be held,” he added.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) with then Yesha Council chairman Hananel Dorani, November 7, 2014. (Courtesy)

Despite the support of smaller far-right and religious parties, Netanyahu has failed  to cobble together a right-wing or unity coalition after two successive tries. Main party rival Blue and White has insisted it will not enter a government headed by Netanyahu, who is facing criminal proceedings, and Sa’ar has publicly challenged Netanyahu for the leadership of the faction.

Most ministers and MKs have continued to back Netanyahu, but a growing roster of local politicians have thrown weight behind Sa’ar.

In endorsing Sa’ar, Dagan called him a worthy leader and an ally of the settlement movement.

Hananel Dorani, the former head of the Yesha settlement umbrella council and current Kedumim Local Council chairman, also backed Sa’ar in a Monday Facebook post.

Dorani said he was holding out hope that Netanyahu would be able to form a government in the week that remains before the December 11 deadline for lawmakers to gather 61 signatures of MKs that would see them tasked with forming a coalition.

“But from the way things seem now, the situation is not about to change and we are facing a third election campaign that… will likely move [the right-wing bloc] further away from the 61 seats, while the left may increase its power,” Dorani wrote.

Calling for snap leadership primaries to be held, the Kedumim mayor endorsed Sa’ar and lauded him for opposing the 2005 Gaza Disengagement when that meant going up against the leader of his own party, then prime minister Ariel Sharon.

“Gideon Sa’ar is the man who can form a government and save the national camp,” Dorani concluded.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (r) with settler leader Yossi Dagan at event commemorating 50 years of settlement in the West Bank, August 28, 2017. (Jacob Magid/Times of Israel)

The endorsements from both Dagan and Dorani, who hail from opposite ends of the fairly narrow settler political spectrum, point to the possibility of widespread dissatisfaction with Netanyahu in the West Bank.

Dorani comes from the establishment flank that has traditionally stood by the prime minister and avoided public confrontations with him, while Dagan has led protests outside the premier’s home and office in Jerusalem. But neither camp has entertained the idea of openly supporting Netanyahu’s ouster, until this week.

Yesha Council chairman David Elhayani, head of the Jordan Valley Regional Council, told The Times of Israel that he was still standing by Netanyahu — who has been charged in three corruption probes — and said he was in the midst of crafting a letter of support for the Likud leader.

That letter was published later Tuesday evening and was signed by eight of the 24 mayors of Israeli localities in the West Bank; though Elhayani was the only regional council chairman among them. The Jordan Valley mayor was joined by local council chairman, including Beit El mayor Shai Alon and Kiryat Arba Local mayor Eliyahu Libman.

(From L-R) Gush Eztion Regional Council chairman Shlomo Ne’eman, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Yesh Council chairman David Elhayani in front of a Gush Etzion lookout point in the West Bank on November 19, 2019. (Haim Zach/GPO)

The open memo thanked Netanyahu for “standing strong” against pressure applied by the Obama administration on Jerusalem to limit settlement expansion and thanked the Likud leader for his pre-election promise to annex the Jordan Valley.

“We all hope that you will continue leading the country,” the eight mayors wrote to Netanyahu.

The Elhayani-initiated letter was published as Channel 13 reported that Netanyahu frantically telephoned settler leaders, urging them to publicly back him in the hours after the statements from Dorani and Dagan in support of Sa’ar.

The prime minister has assiduously courted support from the settler community, vowing not to evacuate settlements and promising to annex them and the entire Jordan Valley. Netanyahu has also boasted of a spike in building in the West Bank in the last several years, under the Trump administration’s permissive eye.

Opponents have criticized the Likud leader of offering empty or cynical gestures to settler leaders in exchange for their support as his legal situation has deteriorated.

Karnei Shomron Local Council chairman Igal Lahav, who came in second in the race to lead Yesha last month, refused to totally endorse either Netanyahu or Sa’ar.

He told The Times of Israel that Netanyahu’s contributions to the settlement movement have been worthy of praise and appreciation. At the same time, the Likud member clarified that Sa’ar would be a legitimate candidate to lead the party and spoke out against efforts by Netanyahu allies to brand the former education minister as a leftist.

Several Likud mayors in Israel proper have also endorsed Sa’ar.

“The time has come for change,” Acre Mayor Shlomo Lankri told the Ynet news site Monday.

Sa’ar is the only Likud member who has officially announced that he will challenge Netanyahu in the next leadership primary.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shakes hands with Gideon Sa’ar during a Likud party meeting at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem on March 11, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Last month, Netanyahu agreed to a Likud leadership contest, but the primary will likely not take place until after the December 11 deadline to form a government.

Sa’ar has accused Netanyahu of prolonging the political deadlock that has wracked the country for the last several months by refusing to step down.

While many in the opposition have called for Netanyahu to resign following the announcement of criminal charges against him, Sa’ar has cited the political morass as the main reason for the prime minister to step down.

“Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu should take responsibility — not because of the indictment, but because of the situation the country is stuck in, without the ability to establish a government,” Sa’ar said last month.

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