Likud primary

Netanyahu faces major challenge to leadership in upcoming Likud Party primary

After failing to form governments in successive elections and with criminal indictments looming, many in the Likud are questioning whether Israel’s embattled premier still has the political capital necessary to deliver a new Likud-led government.

Likud Party leader Benjamin Netanyahu speaks with Knesset member Gideon Sa’ar at the party meeting in the Knesset in Jerusalem on March 2, 2009. Photo by Miriam Alster/Flash90.
Likud Party leader Benjamin Netanyahu speaks with Knesset member Gideon Sa’ar at the party meeting in the Knesset in Jerusalem on March 2, 2009. Photo by Miriam Alster/Flash90.

More than 110,000 members of the Likud Party will vote on Thursday to select a party chairman prior to Israel’s March 2 elections—the country’s third national vote in under 12 months. The incumbent, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is facing a leadership challenge from Knesset member and former minister Gideon Sa’ar.

For Netanyahu, the primary represents the first serious challenge to his leadership of the party in 14 years. After failing to form governments in two successive elections this year and with criminal indictments looming over him for alleged breach of trust and bribery, many longtime Likud members are questioning whether Netanyahu has the political capital necessary to deliver a Likud-led government.

Netanyahu has held the lead in internal Likud Party polls ahead of this week’s primary, and has similarly maintained the public support of all current Likud ministers and a majority of the party’s MKs. Yet Netanyahu is taking the challenge from Sa’ar seriously, campaigning across the country with as many as five events per day.

Tourism Minister Yariv Levin told JNS that the strong support for Netanyahu is based primarily on his proven abilities as a world leader, in combination with the challenges and opportunities Israel currently faces.

“Netanyahu’s accomplishments in all areas—social, economic, diplomatic and security—demonstrate the leadership ability of this unique person to whom we owe a debt of gratitude,” said Levin. “Israel is facing massive challenges from its enemies and unprecedented opportunities with its allies, and we need a leader with Netanyahu’s experience to navigate both.”

That debt of gratitude, said Levin, should be paid now, by supporting Netanyahu while the opposition, media and state prosecutors have all made him a target.

“The prime minister needs all of us now, and after all that he has done for us, he has earned our wide support in this difficult time for him,” said Levin.

Levin also warned that removing a struggling party leader could ultimately hurt the Likud.

“Removing Netanyahu as chairman will lead to Likud falling apart, as we have seen with other parties that remove their leader the moment there is trouble. This is not the Likud’s way, and we cannot act like this. We need Netanyahu to win the election and form the next government.”

While challenger Sa’ar does not have Netanyahu’s leadership experience—and no one in Israel’s political spectrum does—he has held several ministerial posts and is a popular member of the party.

The 53-year-old Sa’ar has served as education minister and interior minister, and as cabinet secretary for former Likud prime minister Ariel Sharon. He served as a Likud MK from 2003-14 before taking a break from politics and then returning to the Knesset earlier this year.

While campaigning to take over the party, Sa’ar has praised the prime minister’s accomplishments. Instead of attacking Netanyahu directly, Sa’ar has focused his campaign on the prime minister’s inability to form a government. Sa’ar has repeated at recent events that “Netanyahu is a prime minister who is admired and respected, but who is stuck and has no chance of forming a government in March.”

Sa’ar has even gone as far as to tell Likud members that if elected chairman he will work to convince the Knesset to elect Netanyahu as the country’s president in the July 2021 presidential election. As president, Sa’ar said, Netanyahu would be able to “continue contributing from his international skills to [improve] Israel’s status in the world.”

Meanwhile, the challenger has garnered the support of five other current Likud MKs, as well as numerous Likud mayors, top activists and former MKs.

Likud MK Yoav Kisch told JNS he supports Sa’ar because “he is the only one who can protect the rule of the right.” Kisch explained that “Netanyahu has failed to form a government twice and he doesn’t bring in new populations [of voters].”

Sa’ar, on the other hand, “brings people back who left the Likud for Blue and White,” he said. “This enables us to increase the size of the right-wing bloc and to maintain the right’s rule.”

“The bottom line,” said Kisch, “is that with Gideon Sa’ar leading the Likud, we will establish a right-wing government. If Netanyahu is the head, we will go to the opposition.”

Sa’ar supporters point to the past two election cycles as evidence that the Blue and White Party will not join a unity government led by Netanyahu, particularly in the wake of the attorney general’s announcement of indictments against the prime minister. They suggest that Sa’ar would potentially have any easier time forming a unity government.

Former MK Yehuda Glick explained to JNS that Likud has lost voters because Netanyahu has been divisive in his tone and language.

“A majority of Israelis support the right,” Glick told JNS, “but Netanyahu has caused many not to vote for the right. If Likud really wants to be in the next government and not in the opposition then it must be led by Gideon Sa’ar, who has the right combination of strong right-wing ideology and is respectful to his political foes.”

MK Sharren Haskel told JNS that “Gideon has the ability to make difficult decisions and move forward with complex processes which will service the right-wing ideology and will advance the State of Israel.”

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