The ruling Likud party said its top 40 candidates for the upcoming elections signed a pledge Sunday offering their unequivocal support for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and stating they have no intention of replacing him after the elections.
The initiative, which was pushed by Likud MK David Bitan, came a day after MK Avigdor Liberman, one of Netanyahu’s chief political rivals, said he would turn to a different Likud lawmaker if the premier rejected his efforts to form a unity government.
“We, the undersigned, candidates for Likud for the 22nd Knesset, emphasize that we will not be dictated to by any other party. Regardless of the election results, prime minister and Likud chairman Benjamin Netanyahu is the only Likud candidate for prime minister — and there will be no other candidate,” the pledge stated.
Likud said the pledge was signed by Nos. 2-40 on its electoral slate. Netanyahu is number one.
“Thanks to Likud members for their unequivocal support of me. Likud is more united than ever,” Netanyahu tweeted.
Bitan, who earlier warned the party would publicly out any lawmaker who refused to sign the pledge, called the letter “an answer to the libelous spin of Blue and White and Yisrael Beytenu.”
The push to gather signatures for the pledge came after Liberman, whose Yisrael Beytenu party is currently forecast to be coalition kingmaker after the September 17 vote, outlined a scenario in which Netanyahu could be ousted as head of the ruling party if he rejected Liberman’s proposed unity government between Likud, Yisrael Beytenu and Blue and White.
Liberman floated Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein as a Likud member who could replace Netanyau, prompting Edelstein to declare the premier was the “sole Likud candidate for prime minister.”
After the pledge letter was first picked up by the Ynet news site, Blue and White No. 2 Yair Lapid said his party was indeed in talks with Likud members about a possible successor to Netanyahu.
Likud lashed out at Lapid and Blue and White leader Benny Gantz over those remarks, accusing them of leading a “dictatorial party” for not holding internal primaries.
“Lapid and Gantz, who are constantly working against each other, and Labor, which changes chairmen every two weeks, can only envy Likud members who stand behind the party chairman,” the party said in a statement.
“Their frustration is understandable: The plot to replace Netanyahu after the election finally collapsed today,” the statement added.
In addition to Blue and White, the pledge was also criticized by the opposition Labor and Democratic Camp parties.
“Netanyahu’s paranoia has crossed all reasonable lines,” Labor head Amir Peretz tweeted. “Likud went from a national liberal party to a party prostrating to one man.”
Former prime minister Ehud Barak, who is running with the Democratic Camp, said Likud’s ideological founder Zeev Jabotinsky “is turning in his grave” over the pledge letter.
“You’ve become Netanyahu’s puppets,” Barak tweeted.
Liberman’s comments Saturday added fresh fuel to his feud with Netanyahu, who is campaigning to pick off supporters from the Yisrael Beytenu leader’s base of immigrants from the former Soviet Union.
Once a political ally, Liberman refused to join a Netanyahu-led government after elections in April unless a bill formalizing exemptions to mandatory military service for seminary students was passed without changes, a demand rejected by the prime minister’s ultra-Orthodox partners.
That impasse helped trigger the fresh vote, as without Yisrael Beytenu Netanyahu was one seat short of a ruling majority.
Liberman has vowed to push for a unity government of his party, Likud and Blue and White that does not include ultra-Orthodox factions if no one can form a coalition after the elections without Yisrael Beytenu.
Likud has dismissed the idea of a unity government, declaring it will seek a coalition with right-wing and religious parties, while Blue and White has voiced support if it does not include Netanyahu.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.