Likud leadership challenger Gideon Sa’ar speaks in September at a conference in Tel Aviv. (Ilia Yefimovich/picture alliance via Getty Images)

Netanyahu Could be Ousted by Own Party

With Israel’s prime minister facing criminal indictments and twice unable to establish a government, his position as Likud party head appears shaky

Israel’s Likud is to hold a primary election within six weeks to choose a party leader.

The news, announced on Sunday, comes in light of serious questions about Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s ability to hang on to power – both in the party and in the government. He has failed twice in a row to form a governing coalition, and on Thursday, the country’s attorney-general said he would indict him on corruption charges.

Netanyahu’s agreement to hold a vote on his leadership while leaving the rest of the Likud’s Knesset list in place is seen as reassurance to nervous backbenchers who, fearing they might not survive a primary challenge, could be tempted to jump ship, throwing their support to a coalition led by Blue and White or another party.

Netanyahu now faces only one declared challenger for party leadership – Knesset member and former interior and education minister Gideon Sa’ar. Sa’ar has been widely touted as an heir to Netanyahu – a perception that has earned him the suspicion and mistrust of the party leader and his supporters.

Others who are considered likely candidates to head the party, either in the upcoming primary or after Netanyahu leaves office, include Knesset member and former Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat, Foreign Minister Israel Katz and MK Yuli Edelstein, a former minister and currently speaker of the Knesset.

Danny Gottleib, a Likud activist and Sa’ar supporter, told The Media Line: “I don’t think most of the would-be candidates who would consider it seriously actually know what they want to do. There are people who clearly want to run, but they intended to not run against Netanyahu.”

On Sa’ar’s chances of beating Netanyahu in the upcoming primary, Gottleib described the race as “very uphill.”

Former MK (Yesh Atid) Dov Lipman, a political commentator for i24NEWS, likewise told The Media Line that Sa’ar’s chances of winning were “very slim.”

Sa’ar, Lipman, predicted, would be facing Netanyahu alone.

“I don’t think there will be anybody else,” he explained. “I don’t think anyone else will have the courage to run against Netanyahu.”

Lipman believes Sa’ar is positioning himself for the possibility that Netanyahu will be legally barred from serving as prime minister.

“There’s going to be a whole legal process to determine whether Netanyahu can even be tasked to form a government,” he said, adding that at least one Supreme Court justice has some doubts.

“Sa’ar is thinking about that as well,” Lipman said. “Even if he thinks he can’t beat him [Netanyahu] in the primary, he will have positioned himself as [being] next in line.”

Sa’ar originally wanted a leadership primary before the end of a 21-day “grace period” ending at midnight on December 11, after which, if no lawmaker is able to assemble a governing coalition, the country automatically heads back to the polls for an unprecedented third election in under a year next March.

According to Sa’ar’s way of thinking, taking over the party at this time could pave the way for a Likud-Blue and White unity government, thus avoiding another election. But Netanyahu told the head of the Likud Central Committee, MK Haim Katz, that he would not permit a snap primary.

Eli Hazan, the Likud’s director of foreign affairs, told The Media Line that holding a leadership vote during the current 21-day period was an impossibility.

“Organizing a primary takes time,” he said. “The Likud has 150,000 members. We need to find 140 locations for polling stations. This doesn’t happen instantly.”

But another party activist, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that technically, an election for the party leadership could be held much sooner.

“It doesn’t take that much to do,” he said.

The activist insists that he continues to support Netanyahu “because of the Iran issue,” yet he is critical of the prime minister for neglecting to prepare a successor, adding that an electoral challenge by Sa’ar would be good for the party.

“The Likud has always been one of the more democratic parties in this country,” he said. “[Sa’ar] is coming out swinging, and I’m all for it. Swing away.”

Still, he thinks Sa’ar’s chances of unseating Netanyahu are small: “I thought Gideon Sa’ar was more popular than he is. It seems that a lot of people don’t like him.”

On the relative strengths of Netanyahu, Sa’ar and other possible contenders for the party leadership, the activist said: “Knowing the culture of the Likud, until Netanyahu is really out… I don’t think there’s going to be a serious leadership threat beyond Gideon Sa’ar…. Sa’ar is clearly the No. 2 in the party. Israel Katz assumes he’s going to be the successor, and I just don’t see it.”

Hazan agrees, saying Katz is not a threat to Netanyahu – at least not yet.

“Israel Katz strongly supports Netanyahu,” he explained. “He won’t run.”

The Likud spokesman’s office isn’t hiding the fact that it is taking Netanyahu’s side in the current leadership race.

“It is sad to see that while Prime Minister Netanyahu keeps Israel safe on all fronts and works to preserve Likud rule, Gideon Sa’ar, as is his wont, is displaying zero loyalty and maximum subversion,” the office said in a statement.

Gottleib, the Sa’ar supporter, says that party spokespeople “should be representing all the party members, and here they are, taking sides. That’s a bit upsetting…. It would be nice to see a fair competition.”

Unlike Sa’ar, Barkat, the former Jerusalem mayor, is biding his time, unwilling to take on Netanyahu directly. For now, he is proposing that the party elect a deputy chairman who could become party leader if Netanyahu is forced to step down.

But Lipman, the former MK, said Netanyahu had yet to accept Barkat’s idea.

“He presented his plan to the prime minister and is waiting to hear back from him. At the moment, it’s not on the table,” Lipman said.

The competition to succeed Netanyahu has created a bitter feud between Sa’ar and Barkat. The latter said on Sunday that “the call to conduct primaries for the leadership of the party is an attempt to oust the premier while disregarding completely the wish of the majority of Likud members.”

Regardless of Netanyahu’s legal woes and electoral prospects, the day will come when he is no longer a contender. A showdown among Barkat, Sa’ar, Katz and perhaps Edelstein seems almost inevitable. But who will have the upper hand?

Says Lipman: “Katz has his supporters. But I don’t think he’s strong enough to take the entire leadership… Everyone loves Yuli [Edelstein] but I don’t know that they see him as a prime minister…. Everything I’m hearing from the inside points a lot more to Barkat.”

The millionaire hi-tech investor became Jerusalem’s mayor on his second try and is considered by some to be a natural heir in the Likud.

“He’s done a lot of work. He has a lot of money…. He’s done tremendous fieldwork,” Lipman said.

“I’m hearing more buzz about Barkat, for sure, than about Gideon Sa’ar,” he continued. “He seems to be playing this very, very well.”

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