Sa’ar challenges Netanyahu ahead of Israel’s third election in a year

Sa'ar is backed by the New Likudniks, who want to see Netanyahu step down over the corruption charges against him.

Challenger Gideon Sa’ar and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, leader of the Likud (photo credit: COURTESY/MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Challenger Gideon Sa’ar and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, leader of the Likud
As the country braced itself, reluctantly, for a third election campaign in less than a year – this time with a prime minister facing a corruption trial – the first key contest was the Likud leadership primary on December 26.
Gideon Sa’ar, a former education and interior minister, is mounting the most serious challenge to the prime minister’s grip on the Likud leadership since Benjamin Netanyahu returned as party chairman in 2005.
Although Sa’ar has only a slim chance of victory, Netanyahu is taking the challenge seriously, starting his day with personal calls to Likud members from his campaign headquarters and then criss-crossing the country to address the Likud faithful, usually with a few rallies on the same day.
Sa’ar has managed to gain the backing of four Likud Knesset members, as well as former minister Haim Katz, who stopped short of a public endorsement. Katz, a powerful figure in the party, counts on the loyal support of thousands of Likud members employed at Israel Aerospace Industries.
Sa’ar is also backed by the New Likudniks, a group that has called for Netanyahu to step down in response to the corruption indictments, although they have also stopped short of formerly endorsing Sa’ar in the primary contest.
The polls show the Likud led by Netanyahu would win more Knesset seats than if Sa’ar was the leader, but Sa’ar, critically, would increase the overall size of the Right-religious bloc.
Praising Netanyahu while calling for a change in leadership, Sa’ar said the prime minister “brought us to power four times, but the writing is on the wall. There won’t be a fifth time.”
He argued Netanyahu has already failed twice in the last year to form a government and will be unable to persuade anyone outside the Right-religious bloc to join him in government.
“A vote for me will ensure Likud rule and the formation of a new government headed by us,” Sa’ar told supporters. “A vote for Netanyahu is a vote for the next head of the opposition.”
Sa’ar has been preparing for this primary contest for a long time and remains a well-respected figure in the party where he has always placed high in primaries to elect the party slate.
Anything close to 40% of the vote or above will be considered a success for Sa’ar and, in any event, he is likely to emerge from the primary contest as the favorite to lead the party in the post-Netanyahu era.
There will be two smaller parties to the right of the Likud in the March election: the New Right headed by Defense Minister Naftali Bennett and a Bayit Yehudi list that this time includes the far-right Otzma Yehudit, headed by Itamar Ben-Gvir.
Announcing the decision to merge his Bayit Yehudi list with Otzma Yehudit, Rabbi Rafi Peretz said the merger reflected the will of the people, which wanted unity. The candidates on the list will be divided up evenly among Bayit Yehudi, the National Union led by Bezalel Smotrich and Otzma Yehudit, in that order.
Ben-Gvir, a supporter of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane’s Kach movement, predicted the merger would be the key to ensuring a 61-seat majority for the right-wing bloc.
The decision to run together with Otzma Yehudit was opposed by a number of Bayit Yehudi activists who said they would demand a vote in party institutions and oppose the move.
Blue and White said the merger proved Kahane’s legacy was alive and well and was on its way into the Knesset only because of Netanyahu’s legal situation.
“The upcoming elections are decisive: either a racist, messianic immunity government or a national conciliation government.”
Polls predict both the smaller right-wing parties will enter the Knesset.
The fact that two other right-wing parties are competing in the March election – one appealing to the hard-right, religious voters and the other to more liberal and secular voters – dovetails with Netanyahu’s strategy to ensure that this time round there will be no right-wing votes lost to parties failing to pass the electoral threshold, with a minimum of four seats required to enter the Knesset.
The popular former justice minister, Ayelet Shaked, reportedly turned down offers from both Bayit Yehudi and Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu when she announced she was sticking with the New Right, taking the second slot on the list.
New Right launched its election campaign under the slogan, “There’s pretend Right, there’s sometimes Right and there’s New Right – a secure Right.”
While the right-wing camp sorted out its lists well ahead of the January 15 deadline for submitting party slates, the picture on the left remains murky.
With both Labor and Meretz/Democratic Union hovering close to the electoral threshold, a joint slate seemed a logical step to ensure the political survival of both parties – without which Blue and White’s chances of forming the next government would be severely impaired.
Meretz leader Nitzan Horowitz called for immediate negotiations to form a united list but Labor chair Amir Peretz again rejected such a scenario, arguing that running together would not increase the overall number of seats for the two left-wing parties. However, Labor will only make a final decision closer to the mid-January deadline and it is likely that a joint list will become an option if both parties fail to improve in the polls.
Labor, meanwhile, has decided to maintain its partnership with Gesher, headed by Orly Levy-Abecassis.
It is unclear if Meretz will maintain the Democratic Union framework. Two key figures have already decided not to run on the Democratic Union slate this time round: former prime minister Ehud Barak, who will not stand for the Knesset, and former Labor MK Stav Shaffir, who is running as head of the Green party, prompting criticism of further splitting the ever-shrinking left-wing vote.
With the chances of forming a coalition that will vote to grant him immunity now unlikely, Netanyahu still aims to maintain some position of power when his corruption trial begins sometime next year. His best bet remains as leader of the opposition and for this reason he is reluctant to follow the example of Ehud Olmert and take a break from politics to concentrate on clearing his name in the courts. And for this reason, even if he loses the next election it is unlikely that he will voluntarily step down as Likud leader.
He’s not going without a fight and he may take the Likud down with him.