Former Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar announced on Thursday that he would not challenge Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for the leadership of their Likud party leadership. Voting by secret ballot, on Wednesday the Likud Central Committee approved Netanyahu’s initiative to hold the leadership primary on the same date as the vote to determine the party’s slate of candidates for the March 17 general election — December 31. The leadership primary had previously been scheduled for January 6. The shift, which made the already brief lead time six days shorter, was expected to greatly reduce Sa’ar’s chances of beating Netanyahu for the top spot.
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“All changes in the rules of the game ... are unfair,” Sa’ar said after voting on Wednesday. “The date of the primaries was already set back on October 6 and there is no reason to change it now,” added Sa’ar, a popular minister who shocked party members by resigning in September.
“In recent days I’ve received numerous and very moving appeals from friends in the movement and from citizens beseeching me to return from the time-out I announced three months ago and to run for the leadership of Likud,” Sa’ar wrote on his Facebook page on Thursday. “I listened to all of you, I studied a lot, I consulted and I weighed the matter with all the seriousness and consideration that the responsibility involved in such a decision demands.
“I had a different view, but I respect yesterday’s decision by the Likud Central Committee to accept the prime minister and party chairman’s proposal to change the previously scheduled date for the Likud primary and make it earlier. Under the circumstances, and after giving it much thought, I have decided not to run for the Likud leadership at this time.”
Sa’ar had managed to sow uncertainty among Likud activists and Knesset members about his intentions in recent weeks. Central Committee members spoke of major efforts to lay the groundwork for a Sa’ar candidacy, including the recruitment of supporters and high-resolution polls to gauge his chances of success.
But some associates of Sa’ar said they did not believe he genuinely sought to challenge Netanyahu and merely seeking to put the prime minister under pressure. Sa’ar would not run, one senior Likud MK who is considered close to the former interior minister flatly predicted on Tuesday. “It’s true that Sa’ar is recruiting supporters and doing polling, and has even told friends that he intends to establish a [campaign] headquarters, but it’s clear to him that it’s a process that can only damage his image at this stage and that his chances of beating Netanyahu in internal [party] elections are not great.”
An Israel Channel 10 news poll published Tuesday gave Likud 20 Knesset seats, whether headed by Netanyahu or by Sa’ar.