Abandoning leadership primary, Likud to confirm Netanyahu as choice for PM

Central Committee to simply declare next week that it will only join a government with Netanyahu as prime minister for full term or as part of rotation

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during the opening of the 22nd Knesset in Jerusalem on October 3, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during the opening of the 22nd Knesset in Jerusalem on October 3, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

The Likud Central Committee will meet next week to confirm its unequivocal support for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as leader, the party said Friday, as the premier retreated from the idea of a snap leadership primary, an idea floated a day earlier and met with a challenge by rival Gideon Sa’ar.

The prime minister accepted the suggestion by MK Haim Katz that the Likud Central Committee will convene on Thursday and publicly back Netanyahu for prime minister in the coalition negotiations, declaring that Likud will only join a government presided over by Netanyahu, either for the full term or as part of a rotation.

There are now no immediate plans for a race to be held for the Likud leadership, the party indicated; Katz has proposed scheduling a primary for a year from now, but no final decision has yet been taken on that. Netanyahu easily won the last Likud leadership contest in 2014, defeating then-MK Danny Danon. A contest planned for 2016 was cancelled because there were no challengers to Netanyahu.

The walkback from the idea of a new leadership vote came after reports on Thursday suggested that several Likud ministers who had met with Netanyahu during the day warned him that he had little to gain but much to lose in holding a leadership primary.

President Reuven Rivlin, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and party leaders pose for a group picture during the swearing-in of the 22nd Knesset in Jerusalem, on October 3, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Netanyahu had mulled a leadership vote, anticipating he would emerge as the clear winner, as a way of bolstering his status as the unchallenged leader of Likud, and signaling to other parties hoping for a coup, amid gridlock in forming a government, that there would be no mutiny against him.

It could also have promised him the leadership of the party until the end of the term of the 23rd Knesset — potentially as long as eight years away.

But soon after the prospect of a leadership contest was announced by Likud Thursday morning, Sa’ar, perhaps the prime minister’s greatest opponent within Likud, signaled he would be a contender. “I’m ready,” Sa’ar tweeted.

Likud MK Gideon Sa’ar attends a Likud faction meeting at the opening of the 22nd Knesset in Jerusalem, on October 3, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

While Netanyahu enjoys great popularity within Likud, his failure to form a coalition following the April election, and his struggles to do so once again after last month’s vote, have dented his reputation as the invincible prince of Israeli politics.

Sa’ar, who enjoys great popularity among Likud’s voter base, could prove a formidable challenger when the party’s 130,000 card-carrying members vote in a primary.

Even if Netanyahu did win, a bruising leadership battle could leave the party’s dirty laundry out for all to see, after years in which it has mostly managed to tamp down on internal dissent even as Netanyahu has faced mounting legal woes.

According to Channel 12, a major factor in Netanyahu’s reconsideration was his understanding that a contest would be held in November at earliest, allowing his rivals to well prepare and pushing the primary vote towards dates when decisions could be made by state prosecutors on whether to charge him in three separate criminal cases — an inopportune time to ask for a vote of confidence.

Neither Netanyahu nor rival Blue and White leader Benny Gantz has a clear path to leading a government. Netanyahu is currently trying to muster a coalition, without success. Gantz is likely to be given the task if he fails.

Talks between Netanyahu and Yisrael Beytenu chief Avigdor Liberman over the latter’s proposal for a unity government ended Thursday morning without progress.

Likud and Blue and White have been negotiating a possible power-sharing deal with a rotating premiership, but the two parties have been unable to agree on who would be prime minister first under such an arrangement.

Gantz has refused to sit in a coalition with Netanyahu so long as the prime minister is facing indictment, and has been hoping that Sa’ar or another prominent Likud figure might lead a breakaway within the party and join forces with him.

In the context of his legal battles, Netanyahu is anxious to remain in office as he fights the allegations against him. Under Israeli law, ministers must vacate their posts if charged, but prime ministers can potentially stay on until all appeal processes are exhausted.

Blue and White leaders Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid (L) share a laugh during a faction meeting at the Knesset on October 3, 2019. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)

Netanyahu again called for a “wide national unity government” Thursday to stave off a third round of elections in less than a year, saying the country’s security challenges demanded political stability and a broad-based government.

Gantz repeated his call for Netanyahu to step aside. “If he vacates his position, there will be a unity government within an hour,” he told reporters at the Knesset.

On Wednesday, at the first of Netanyahu’s pre-indictment hearings, his defense team presented state prosecution officials with new arguments and fresh evidence in the cases, which they asserted “completely contradict the claims in the charge sheet.” The hearing continued Thursday.

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