Netanyahu Challenger Gideon Sa'ar Submits Official Request for Likud Leadership Race

Former minister says a government can still be formed in the current Knesset, just not by Netanyahu

Gideon Sa'ar in a Likud party convention in Tel Aviv, November 17, 2019
Moti Milrod

Senior Likud member Gideon Sa'ar submitted an official request for a snap leadership primary to the party's Central Committee Chairman Haim Katz on Sunday morning.

The move comes following a television interview given on Israel's Channel 12 News on Saturday night where Sa'ar described Netanyahu's reaction to his indictment for bribery, fraud and breach of trust - the premier had called it "an attempted coup" - as "wrong and irresponsible."

In the letter to the Central Committee Chairman, Sa'ar said "This move has the power to prevent Israel's decline into unnecessary third elections, which Prime Minister Netanyahu himself described as letting the system go haywire."

Since a government can still be formed in the current Knesset, Sa'ar said, "there is a chance to do to put an end to the political crisis that has been going on for as long as a year."

The decision on when to hold Likud Central Committee meetings is made in coordination between the party chairman and the central committee chairman. The only exception to this rule is if the purpose of the meeting is to discuss the timing of a leadership race, which comes under the central committee chairman's authority alone.

Katz replied to the request, saying he “will meet the prime minister and party chairman Benjamin Netanyahu and together we will make a decision with only the good of the state and of the party in mind.”

"Regarding primaries for the party's list as agreed between me and the party chairman and as I reported to the Likud faction last week there is a need to convene the central committee to scrap the party primary for the next Knesset as those who were elected only served in a transitional Knesset and not an active one,” he said.

In his televised interview on Saturday night, Sa'ar initially praised Netanyahu's achievements as the country's prime minister, but then noted he had failed to win the Likud a governing majority twice. 

"He had our full support even when he made a mistake like dissolving the Knesset [after the April election], Sa'ar said, adding "I don't think that in a third or fifth election campaign he'll be able to form a government. We're not that far from losing control of the country to our adversaries."

At one point in the interview, Sa'ar looked straight into the camera and said he was directly addressing Netanyahu: "I am appealing to the prime minister so that we can end this crisis, which you said was the reason we're being ridiculed around the world. How long will we continue like this as a society?," he said.

"If today we go to a primary and we come to a democratic decision, we can save Likud's rule," said the former minister.

So far, no other members of Likud have come as close as Sa'ar to challenging Netanyahu's rule. The party has only had four leaders since the foundation of the state and has an ingrained culture of loyalty toward the leader.

The Likud issued a statement after the interview slamming Sa'ar's critical stance. "It is unfortunate to see that while Prime Minister Netanyahu maintains Israel's security on all fronts and works to preserve Likud's rule, Gideon Sa'ar as usual shows zero loyalty and maximum subversion," the statement read.