Gideon Saar, Netanyahu’s most outspoken challenger within Likud, told an Israeli news show Saturday that it was time for the party to hold primaries to decide its leader and keep it from losing power.
Saar, a 52-year-old former minister who returned to politics last year after a four-year hiatus, said he himself could end the political crisis. On Sunday, he submitted a request to the party’s central committee calling for a leadership vote to be held in the next three weeks — the deadline for the country’s lawmakers to form a long-elusive government before another general election must be called.
Since an inconclusive vote on Sept. 17, Netanyahu and his main political rival, former military chief Benny Gantz, have each tried and failed to cobble together coalition governments. On Wednesday, Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin handed the mandate for forming the next government to the Knesset, Israel’s parliament. But with Likud and Gantz’s Blue and White faction refusing to budge on key demands, the chance of a coalition emerging within the remaining time is slim.
Saar called for snap primaries to take place as soon as possible to prevent “deteriorating into unnecessary third elections.”
“Time after time, following the April election and after the September election, Netanyahu did not succeed in forming a government, yet he still received complete support from all of us,” Saar said in the television interview.
“Let’s say we go to a third election,” he said. “I have not heard a single person who thinks that after a third or fourth or fifth or sixth election that Prime Minister Netanyahu will succeed in forming a government.”
Political scientist Emmanuel Navon, a former member of Likud’s central committee, described Saar’s move as a calculated risk.
“He knows that Likud has the mentality of blind faithfulness to its leader, but the facts are clear: There is no way Netanyahu will form a government in the next 18 days, especially now he has been indicted,” he said.
Navon said Saar was giving Likud members a choice: “stick with Netanyahu and lose power or pick me and stay in power.”
The party released a statement immediately after the interview criticizing Saar, who has clashed with Netanyahu in the past.
“It is regrettable to see that while Prime Minister Netanyahu is safeguarding Israel’s security on all fronts and is acting to preserve the Likud’s rule, Gideon Saar, as usual, has shown zero loyalty and maximum subversiveness,” the party said.
Some of Netanyahu’s staunchest supporters were also quick to speak out, dismissing the idea of challenging Netanyahu by holding primaries at this stage. They suggested that if a leadership vote were held, there would also need to be elections for the entire party list. Such a step would be wildly unpopular in Likud, which held a general primary less than a year ago. A leadership primary has not been held since 2015, when Netanyahu ran uncontested.
But the party’s constitution does not require both primaries to be held at the same time. Holding a vote for leadership needs approval from the 3,800 members of the central committee before it can be opened up to the party’s roughly 150,000 members.
Even if a vote were held, it is unclear whether Saar could unseat Netanyahu. Since returning to lead the party in 2005, Netanyahu has consolidated his position, dividing and weakening his opponents and facing few challenges.
But this time could be different. With the legal charges and his failure twice to form a government headed by Likud, there is likely to be a handful of other candidates alongside Saar who might also try their luck.