Senior Likud Lawmaker Calls for Leadership Race: Netanyahu Can't Form Government

Lawmaker Gideon Sa'ar criticizes prime minister's attack against law enforcement, says calling AG's decision to indict 'an attempted coup' is wrong and irresponsible

Israel's Likud Party leader Benjamin Netanyahu, and MK Gideon Sa'ar during a meeting at the Knesset, in Jerusalem, in 2013.
Alex Kolomoisky

Senior Likud member Gideon Sa'ar has called for a Likud leadership primary, criticizing Benjamin Netanyahu's attack on Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit and the claim that the decision to indict the prime minister on corruption charges is "an attempted coup."

"Whoever heads the executive branch can't say that Mendelblit's decision is an attempt of a legal coup. That's not right, it's not responsible," Sa'ar, seen as Netanyahu's main rival in the party, told Channel 12 News on Saturday. Answering questions in the studio during the main evening news program, he added: "It's not fixing the system, it's smashing the system."

Sa'ar, a former interior minister, said that "it's impossible to talk about the attorney general's decision as a coup; we're creating an atmosphere of chaos in the country, and that I oppose."

He noted that Netanyahu has failed to form a government after the two general elections held this year. "He had our full support even when he made a mistake like dissolving the Knesset" after the April election, Sa'ar said.

"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," he said before calling on Netanyahu to hold a primary ahead of the 21-day deadline for a new government to be formed. "If today we go to a primary and we come to a democratic decision, we can save Likud's rule."

Looking straight into the camera, he said that "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?" A third election would directly contradict the country's interests, he added.

Likud responded with a statement saying that "the Likud chairman is Prime Minister Netanyahu, who has given Likud 32 seats via ballots that read  'Likud headed by Netanyahu.'

"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."

Justice Minister Amir Ohana, a Likud legislator interviewed in the studio after Sa'ar, said that anyone from the party coming out against Netanyahu "is making a huge political mistake."

Referring to Likud's history of being cautious in changing its leaders – the party has had only four leaders since Israel was founded in 1948 – he said: "It's just not in our DNA."

The Minister of Communications David Amsalem said on Saturday that the accompanying attorney for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's attorney, Liat Ben Ari, "should sit in prison." He also claimed that Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit did not make the decision to publish the indictment against Netanyahu himself for bribery, fraud and breach of trust, but state attorney Shai Nitzan led the move.

When I heard Mendelbit, I was very sad," Amsalem said in on Channel 12 news. "He put on the self-righteous mask, as if he was some great righteous man, and in fact he read what Shai Nitzan dictated to him. Mandelblit does not have the mental power." He also said "Mandelblit reminds me of Officer Azoulay. We appointed him, so we made a mistake. Liat Ben Ari should sit in prison for me."

Amsalem also argued that the investigators "should be investigated" and called the decision to file the indictment "a coup." He also said, "The prime minister, in my opinion, is not a corrupt person. He is a straight man."

On Thursday, Netanyahu called the approved corruption indictment "an attempted coup" against a sitting prime minister.

Earlier that day, Mendelblit announced he was indicting Netanyahu for bribery, fraud and breach of trust in three cases, the first time a sitting Israeli prime minister has been indicted.