Israel Election Results: Netanyahu Considers Snap Primary to Dispel 'Rebellion Illusion'; Likud Rival: I'm Ready

Netanyahu says primaries are 'holding other party leaders back from joining a national unity government'

Gideon Sa'ar, Benjamin Netanyahu and Avichai Mendelblit in Jerusalem, 2014.
Marc Israel Salem

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is considering holding a snap primary election to dispel the "illusion of a rebellion" within Likud, the party said Thursday.

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The party's central committee will meet Thursday to discuss advancing the primaries.

According to the party's statement, Netanyahu was considering a snap primary to “shatter the illusion of a ‘Likud rebellion,’ which other parties hope for,” arguing that is what’s “holding other party leaders back from joining a national unity government.”

Moments after the statement was released, Likud rival Gideon Sa’ar tweeted: “I’m ready.”

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Netanyahu is trying to head off any attempts within his own Likud party to replace him as its leader, if as expected he fails in his efforts to form a new government in coming days. The step Netanyahu is taking is meant to prevent a revolt by Likud party Knesset members who may try to receive the mandate from the president to form the next government.

Netanyahu is afraid of a situation such as one that led him in the past to promote what is known as the “Gideon Sa’ar Bill,” which aimed to prevent a Likud MK from gathering enough support for his candidacy to put together the next government – even though the Sa'ar was not the party’s official chairman and candidate for prime minister. Netanyahu is considering holding the primary to head off such a possibility and show he has won a renewed mandate from the party to form the next government and lead it in the next election.  

Foreign Minister Yisrael Katz said in a statement that he supports Netanyahu “should early an Knesset election be held,” adding that “the entire Likud will unite around Netanyahu as candidate from prime minister” if another election cycle is announced, making no direct reference to Netanyahu’s primary election proposal.

“I call on [Kahol Lavan leader Benny] Gantz and his friends to act wisely and responsibly, and allow the formation of a broad government, as election results and the president’s proposal dictate,” Katz added.

Culture Minister Miri Regev also expressed her support for the prime minister in the event of primaries, saying that "it's clear that if they occur, I'll support only Benjamin Netanyahu, and I'll make sure that other party members do so as well." 

The remarks come amid a political deadlock in coalition talks. Netanyahu and Yisrael Beiteinu's Avigdor Lieberman met on Thursday for the first time since Israel's September 17 election, but Netanyahu's Likud party said "there was no breakthough" in stalled coalition talks.

“Netanyahu offered Lieberman to join the government as soon as possible, to enable the formation of a national unity government,” Likud said in a statement, while Yisrael Beiteinu, reiterating support for a broad coalition, said "the right way forward is agreeing on shared fundamentals between Yisrael Beiteinu, Likud and Kahol Lavan" before discussing the makeup of the government.

In February, Netanyahu tried to prevent Sa'ar, formerly Israel' Interior Minister, from winning a Likud primary, saying, “more than two, three people” had told him that Sa’ar had approached them to promote his candidacy for prime minister. According to Netanyahu, Sa’ar told them that Rivlin wouldn’t give Netanyahu the go-ahead to form the next government because Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit plans to prosecute him. “I’m not making this up,” Netanyahu said. “His maneuver won’t succeed.”

Last October, Netanyahu accused Sa’ar of “concocting a subversive trick” to be able to serve as prime minister in his stead once Likud wins the next elections, and had approached several Likud members to garner support. 

The key question is the timing of the primary. Holding primaries would only feasible if Netanyahu has a realistic chance of forming a new government, making it hard for his Likud opponents to run against him.

Section 85 of the Likud party constitution states that the “Likud chairman is the Likud candidate for serving as prime minister of Israel.” This seems to mean other MKs from the party cannot collect the support of 61 MKs – after the first two candidates fail to form a government – and become the Likud candidate to form a government instead of Netanyahu.  

The party constitution states that a leadership primary must be held no later than half a year before the date of a Knesset election, in normal times. The winning candidate needs at least 40 percent of all the votes of party members to win in the first round, otherwise a second round will be held.