Challenging Netanyahu, Likud Rival Calls for Party Primary Before Election

Prime minister, allies promoting proposal to cancel internal vote before a likely third national election in one year

Laborers hang up a Likud election campaign banner depicting Benjamin Netanyahu at the center, Gideon Sa'ar second from left, Jerusalem March 28, 2019
Ammar Awad/ REUTERS

Former minister and senior Likud member Gideon Sa’ar said Thursday that the party should consider going to a primary in case of a third election, going against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's claims that the internal contest should be cancelled, keeping him at the helms.

"I think I will be able to form a government and I think I will be able to unify the nation," said Sa'ar, seen as Netanyahu's main rival within the party, intimating that he would succeed where Netanyahu failed.

Speaking at the Jerusalem Post Diplomatic Conference in Jerusalem, Sa'ar said that although he supports the prime minister's efforts towards national unity, it was not reasonable to expect "that the prime minister will be successful in forming a government," in the case of a third election.

"I think the necessary thing to do, if we are faced with new elections, is to set a Likud leadership primary," he added.

Likud announced Wednesday that Netanyahu and Haim Katz, chairman of the party's central committee, will advance a proposal to cancel the primaries for the party leadership in the event of a third election. 

"In light of the fear that the state will tumble towards unnecessary elections, and following many Likud Knesset members' requests," Katz and Netanyahu decided "to present a joint proposal that there would be no primaries for the Likud list," a statement said If the proposal is accepted, the Likud's slate for the 23rd Knesset will be the same as the current one.

Netanyahu is looking to prevent the contest to strengthen his candidacy and thwart possible divide within the party. In early October, he called for but then cancelled a snap primary in order to quell unrest within Likud, and prevent a potential change of guard.

The move is also intended to prevent "the defection of Knesset members from the back benches of the Likud to a possible coalition headed by Gantz in the next 21 days," a senior party source told Haaretz.

The issue has already provoked some dissension within Netanyahu's party. Likud lawmaker Yoav Kish said on Thursday he opposes the cancellation of the party's primaries. "I don't see a situation where there will be no primaries for the party leadership, we are a democratic party, and this is at the base of the party. Some people want to run," he told Israel's Army Radio. He declined to say which candidate he would support.

Culture Minister Miri Regev, on the contrary, said Likud should remain united around Netanyahu, especially as everyone understands this is part of the "same, rolling election campaign." 

“We’re all sick and tired of elections, we’re all sick and tired of primaries,” Regev wrote on Twitter, claiming Likud will only be able to “win big” a possible third election if Netanyahu remains at the helm.

This summer, Regev made headlines for telling an interviewer that God, or literally, "the Holy One" was the final decider in Israel's election contest.