Netanyahu, Challenged by Political Rivals, Warms Up to Direct Vote for PM

Changing voting system 'starts to sound interesting,' Netanyahu says, as main Likud opponent Sa'ar accuses him of unleashing 'wild' incitement

Noa Landau
Noa Landau
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and political rival Gideon Sa'ar at a Likud faction meeting, May 31, 2019.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and political rival Gideon Sa'ar at a Likud faction meeting, May 31, 2019. Credit: Gil Cohen-Magen
Noa Landau
Noa Landau

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Thursday that holding a direct election for prime minister is "an option that starts to sound interesting."

Speaking to reporters in Lisbon, where he earlier met with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his Portuguese counterpart Antonio Costa, Netanyahu said he seeks to "avoid unnecessary election."    

The premier added that "I intend to invest every effort despite Kahol Lavan's objection to reach an agreement and prevent this [third] truly unnecessary election. Benny Gantz can [prevent it] if he manages to overcome Yair Lapid and if [Avigdor] Lieberman overcomes himself," Netanyahu said, referring to Kahol Lavan co-leader and Yisrael Beiteinu chairman, who said he has no intention to have his party join a narrow, right-wing government headed by Netanyahu.

After both Netanyahu and Gantz had failed to form a coalition within the 28-day period given to them, the mandate to form a government returned to the Knesset, allowing any lawmaker to gain the support of 61 Knesset members within 21 days. If a government is not formed by December 11 at midnight, the Knesset will dissolve, sending Israelis to the polls for the third time within a year.   

Netanyahu says he demands to serve first as prime minister if a unity government is formed with Kahol Lavan, even only during the first few months after it's formed, due to "the need of government continuity, which is the glue needed to implement a policy," adding that "we never know what tomorrow brings.

When asked why he refuses to resign, the prime minister said that "the public has chosen me. Let the public decide." The premier refused to address Likud's primary election and whether he would seek immunity from the Knesset in his three pending corruption cases.           

Also on Thursday, Netanyahu's biggest rival in his Likud party, Gideon Sa'ar, accused the premier of "wild incitement" and claimed that those who support his own call for a snap primary election to choose a new party leader are violently attacked. 

In an interview with news website Ynet, Sa'ar said that "the heads of local communities are threatened they will lose their budget so that they don't support me or do support the prime minister. These are violent practices that have never been in use in the Likud. All this incitement is coming from the prime minister, and he never spoke out against it."

The former education minister, who has announced in the past that he wishes to replace Netanyahu as party leader, further charged that the prime minister "knows that wild incitement is happening on his behalf on social media outlets." 

Sa'ar also addressed the fact that several members of Likud had turned against him after he called for a primary election. "Everyone has their personal interests. The real question that we need to ask ourselves is how did we get to the state when, as a democratic country, those who call for a democratic race are considered traitors and back-stabbers?"

He added that he and his family members were "violently attacked" since he called for Likud to hold a primary election. 

Sa'ar added that "if Netanyahu continues to lead Likud, there are two options: One, that we continue to stay in the same state and nobody can set up a government. Two, we will be forced to hand the government to our political rivals on silver platter. That's the danger I see right now." 

Last month, Sa'ar went after Netanyahu, saying that he is incapable of setting up a government because of the indictments that were filed against him. He called on Likud to hold a snap primary election to prevent Israel from heading for another election. "In two election campaigns Netanyahu failed to form a government. He got full backing from us even when he made a mistake like dissolving the Knesset," he said at the time. 

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