Likud divisions on display in turbulent meeting

Central committee cancels primary for party list; Netanyahu supporters heckle Sa’ar after PM applies Sa’ar will give up West Bank.

MK Gideon Sa’ar speaks at a Likud central committee meeting on December 8, 2019 (photo credit: OFIR BAR)
MK Gideon Sa’ar speaks at a Likud central committee meeting on December 8, 2019
(photo credit: OFIR BAR)
Sharp divisions between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s supporters and those who back MK Gideon Sa’ar were on display at a Likud central committee meeting on Sunday.
In an unruly meeting that the party attempted to hide by closing it to the press but which participants filmed on their smartphones, the central committee voted to cancel the primary for the Likud’s list in the event of another  election.
“I don’t know if we’ll go to an election,” Netanyahu said to central committee members. “We are making the last effort not to go to an election. But if they’re forced on us, we will go and win big.”
Sa’ar entered the hall in Expo Tel Aviv flanked by MKs on his side, Yoav Kisch and Michal Shir, amid cheers from his supporters.
But when Sa’ar took the stage, he was repeatedly interrupted by booing and shouts of “Bibi, Bibi.”
Sa’ar’s speech defended his choice to run against a Likud leader who is currently prime minister by citing historical precedents, which he said were “not a putsch, but fulfilling the democratic tradition of our party in all its glory.”
After the event, Sa’ar brushed off the jeers on Facebook, thanking his supporters and saying, “the Likud was always a lively democratic movement. I am determined to run for head of the party out of an understanding that a change in leadership is needed in order to save the country from the continuing political crisis, to establish a government led by the Likud and to unite the nation.”
Though Sa’ar – the only MK to say he will run against Netanyahu – sought to have the committee set a date for a Likud leadership primary, the matter was not on the meeting’s agenda. A leadership vote could take place as early as December 22 if the Knesset does not support a candidate for prime minister by Wednesday at midnight.
The move to cancel the Likud list primary was meant to ensure the loyalty of the faction's backbenchers so that they would not break away and join a Blue and White-led coalition. In an additional attempt at placating the Likud's back row, the central committee voted to support the "Norwegian Law," that would have all ministers resign from the Knesset so that there are more active legislators.
Earlier on Sunday, Netanyahu hinted that Sa’ar enjoys positive media coverage because he will make concessions in the West Bank.
“The dominant media in Israel... has an incomprehensible and unchanging fantasy that we will get peace by being weaker and making concessions,” Netanyahu said at a conference hosted by the Makor Rishon newspaper. “They know that what is preventing that from happening is my ability to block the pressures and enlist the US to our side. Therefore, their goal is to bring me down.
“The Left knows that if they topple me, they will topple the Right,” he added.
In an apparent reference to Sa’ar, Netanyahu asked: “Who does the left-wing media... praise and protect? In the end, he will pay the bill and bring [the Left] the goods. The goods are Judea and Samaria. That is a simple rule that has been proven in the past.”
Sa’ar, who has enacted pro-settlement policies such as promoting the establishment of a university in Ariel, took to Twitter to respond, calling to annex all settlements.
“The future of Judea and Samaria must be ensured through acts and not talk: stop the Palestinian takeover of Area C, which has continued undisturbed for years,” he wrote. “Evacuate Khan al-Ahmar after countless postponements. Apply Israeli sovereignty to all of our settlement territory, as the Likud central committee decided two years ago.”
Sa’ar also spoke out against direct election for the prime minister, a plan Netanyahu said he was eyeing last week. Holding a direct election for prime minister instead of a Knesset election would likely foil Sa’ar’s plan to run against Netanyahu in a primary.
“We should not change the system of government hastily to resolve a momentary political situation,” Sa’ar said on KAN Bet. “It doesn’t solve the problem; you need a majority in the Knesset in the end... Our problem today is that we lost the majority in the Knesset.
“Unfortunately, as long as Netanyahu will continue to lead the Likud we will not have a majority in the Knesset,” he added.
Netanyahu has said he will consider a proposal by Likud MK Shlomo Karhi for direct election, which solves the problem of a lack of a majority by giving the winning candidates an extra 10% of the Knesset seats, bringing the total number of seats up to 132. The bill would not be a temporary fix for now alone; rather, direct election would kick in after multiple failed attempts at building a government, like what happened in the past year.
However, most of the Knesset opposes direct election at this point, and they are unlikely to be put into place.