Knesset Member Gideon Sa’ar has officially declared his candidacy for party leadership – at the start of an uphill mission he hopes will lead to the replacement Benjamin Netanyahu as head of the Likud, and ultimately the nation.
The former Education and Interior Minister kicked off his campaign with the slogan “Only Sa’ar Can” at a rally of up to 1000 supporters at the Or Yehuda suburb of Tel Aviv last night. The upcoming leadership primary is set for December 26. Sa’ar paid tribute to his onetime-mentor’s contributions to the state, saying that Netanyahu “brought us to power four times,” before pointedly saying “but the writing is on the wall. There won’t be a fifth time.”
Sa’ar’s bid marks the first serious internal challenge confronting Netanyahu since he first assumed the party’s chairmanship in 1993. It should be noted that Netanyahu resigned the position after being defeated in the 1999 national elections by Ehud Barak, and his attempts to unseat Ariel Sharon as Likud chief after returning to political life in 2000 were unsuccessful until Sharon voluntarily left the position to found the new Kadima party in 2005. Netanyahu has firmly been entrenched at the helm since that time, and Sa’ar is the only contender to openly challenge his rule.
“If nothing is changed, we are very close to a left-wing government that will endanger the country and all of our achievements. It will also block us from reforming the justice system, which is needed,” declared Sa’ar.
While one opinion poll published by the Kan public network on Sunday (December 15) indicated Likud led by Sa’ar would emerge weaker after the 2 March 2020 parliamentary elections, another by the pro-Netanyahu Israel Hayom newspaper on Friday ((December 13) revealed a shift from Netanyahu’s chairmanship to Sa’ar would have no effect. The party was projected to take 31 seats with either Netanyahu or Sa’ar at the helm, whereas its greatest rival the Blue and White headed by Benny Gantz carried a significant 6-mandate lead at a record 37 up from its current 33 in the 120-seat Knesset.
More startlingly, the Israel Hayom survey also revealed that while neither Sa’ar nor Netanyahu would garner sufficient support to win an outright 61 majority, Sa’ar would come far closer to cobbling together a right-wing religious bloc. He was projected to succeed in building a 56-seat block with Likud’s natural ultra-Orthodox and nationalist allies, while Netanyahu descended to a new depth of just 51. The 70-year-old embattled Prime Minister has already failed twice this year at his government formation attempts, in the wake of both the April 9th and September 17th elections.
“I will grow the right-wing bloc, Netanyahu will shrink it,” Sa’ar told Channel 13, adding that a Netanyahu reelection as Likud chief “will take us to the opposition. Only choosing me will enable Likud to remain in power.”
A Channel 12 news report lent credibility to that argument, citing proclamations from “a senior right-wing figure” attesting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu no longer enjoys automatic support of smaller factions if Likud doesn’t attract sufficient votes from the constituency. “There will not be another blind following of Netanyahu,” he allegedly said, stressing that “A fourth election is not an option and would be unforgivable.” The unnamed right-wing bloc member is then quoted as saying he and his allies are willing to consider supporting another candidate to form a government if Netanyahu cannot do so.
While many still view the contender as an underdog, Sa’ar has been lining up support among Likud loyalists, including the powerful chairman of the party’s executive central committee, MK Haim Katz. As former boss of the labor union at Israel Aerospace Industries for two decades, Katz still wields significant influence over the 16,000 employees at the largest state-owned enterprise.
Other Likudniks, as followers are known in Hebrew, have openly accused Sa’ar of betraying Israel’s longest-serving premier. In a dire prediction, Netanyahu ally MK David Bitan said on Channel 13 that the Likud would plunge under 20 seats if it is lead by anyone other than its longtime leader. Moreover, Bitan characterized the upcoming national elections as “The fight between Netanyahu and the left,” while asserting Sa’ar is only serving the party’s rivals who want to topple the Prime Minister.
While Sa’ar has consistently maintained he tossed his hat into the party leadership race in response to Netanyahu’s inability to form a governing coalition, other politicians and leading figures have demanded the Premier step down following his pending indictment on bribery, fraud and breach of trust. The mantra of the Blue and White party during arduous – and ultimately deadlocked – coalition negotiations over the past two Knesset elections as well as the upcoming March poll has been that it will not sit in a government with a prime minister facing the magnitude of these corruption charges. Netanyahu’s replacement by Sa’ar would eliminate any such objections.
Netanyahu has adamantly denied any wrongdoing, and accused the media, law enforcement officials and prosecutors of mounting a “coup” against him. He has denounced Sa’ar as “subversive,” and a video created by some of his Likud supporters portrayed Sa’ar as a terrorist.
Netanyahu has yet to respond to an offer to hold a public debate by Sa’ar, who said: “I am waiting for you, Mr. Prime Minister, at any time and any place you choose.”
According to Channel 13, Netanyahu is vigorously engaged in efforts to secure an alliance of four small factions to avoid a reccurence of “wasted votes” that was witnessed in both previous 2019 elections. Last April he mediated a pact for the far-right Otzma Yehudit to run on a joint ticket with the Jewish Home and National Union, but the Yamina-New Right faction ran independently and failed to attract enough support to make it past the 3.25% electoral threshold. The same thing happened in September, when Yamina formed an electoral alliance with both the Jewish Home and National Union, while this time Otzma Yehudit ran on its own and failed to make it into the Knesset.
The second-in-command of the Jewish Home-National Union alliance, Bezalel Smotrich, also called for the unification of the smaller right-wing factions, telling Channel 12 that “We need to learn from past mistakes.” He said that if Yamina had passed the electoral threshold after the first round of balloting last April, “we’d already be nearing a year with a good right-wing government.”
Yamina’s co-leader Naftali Bennett, however, has already declared his party intends to compete solely. Shas party head Aryeh Deri said that the bloc of 55 MKs who declared support of Netanyahu after the September elections would continue to cooperate with one another, but remained non-committal over prospects they could remain unified if the Likud fails to win an outright majority.
While speaking to Channel 12, Yisrael Beiteinu Chairman Avigdor Liberman voiced his own belief that “the story of blocs is over.” The right-wing secularist party has repeatedly demanded the formation of a national unity government between the Likud and the Blue and White, and refused to make an exclusive deal to join either faction.
The leader of the centrist Blue and White party, Lieutenant General (res.) Benny Gantz said at the opening of a faction meeting that “Israel is going to elections because one man has placed his own needs above the needs of Israel’s citizens.” He added: “As we enter another election campaign, I call upon leaders from both the right and the left – do not be afraid. Do not be silent. Do not allow any one leader to put himself before the good of the country. The chains of the immunity bloc must be broken. And the fear of opposing corruption must be replaced by civic courage and ethical leadership. Blue and White, under my leadership, was not silent, is not silent and will not be silent. We are here to replace the government. I entered politics to fight and to change the direction in which this country is headed, not to wage personal wars.” He then vowed to “manage the upcoming campaign with respect and statesmanship,” Gantz stressed, “There is no other option.”
The Blue and White is reportedly hoping to further bolster its current lead among voters by investigating the addition of a prominent woman to a high position on its roster, as well as a national-religious figure with the potential of attracting religious voters.