Gideon Saar: The only man prepared to confront Benjamin Netanyahu

The mood is turning against Benjamin Netanyahu, but the prime minister is still expected to win Likud's leadership contest handsomely



“It’s so annoying. Half of Likud leaders know it’s time to get rid of Bibi and want to do it, but instead they let Gideon take all the poison and do nothing.”

The close confidant of Gideon Saar, a veteran Likudnik himself, reeled off the names of senior Likud ministers and Knesset members who he claims are itching to see prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu leave.

He then showed on his phone countless text messages in which he was being called a traitor, and worse, for supporting Mr Saar’s bid to replace the prime minister as Likud leader.

Earth-shaking though it was that Mr Netanyahu was indicted for bribery and three counts of fraud and breach of trust last Thursday, it has yet to do much to weaken his hold on power.

Neither has Mr Saar’s Channel 12 interview on Saturday night, in which he demanded a snap leadership election and announced he would be running in it.

So far, he has received the support of none of the party’s ministers. Only one Likud Knesset member has said she is backing him. Another MK who said he supports holding the primaries would not commit to supporting either candidate.

The nascent Saar campaign is so bereft of high level supporters that they are counting the number of Likud mayors who have come out for him –— so far, three.

But while the challenge to Mr Netanyahu’s leadership is hardly gaining momentum, his own base of support is starting to erode.

The silence of some of Likud’s senior ministers is ominous and the turnout at a rally organised to support him in Tel Aviv on Tuesday night was distinctly underwhelming.

An estimated 7,000 people, with only one minister and a couple of MKs, was a far cry from what he had hoped for, after his team and he personally spent four days trying to bring out much larger numbers.

Mr Netanyahu has agreed to holding a leadership election in principle. He could hardly deny Mr Saar; the last time Likud held one was in 2014 and there have been three parliamentary elections since then, with another perhaps just around the corner.

But the timing of such a leadership vote could be crucial. If it is held after the December 11 deadline to form a new government, then even if Mr Netanyahu loses, he cannot be replaced as prime minister since the country will already be on track for a March 2020 election.

With less than two weeks to go until the deadline, it seems only Mr Netanyahu wants that election — it would, after all, guarantee him at least three more months in power. The rest of the political system, including most Likudniks, is frantic to avoid one.

On Wednesday afternoon, Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein called upon Mr Netanyahu and Blue & White leader Benny Gantz to resume negotiations.

But when the parties met, it turned out that Likud’s offer had barely changed: they still insisted Mr Netanyahu remains in office, albeit for just six months more, and then suspends himself while Mr Gantz becomes acting prime minister.

This was unacceptable to Blue & White, which is committed to not serving under a prime minister facing criminal charges.

“Why does he need a bit more time (in office)?” tweeted an aide to Yair Lapid, Blue & White’s deputy leader. “Is there any national reforms he has to complete? Is he signing a peace treaty in a couple of months? Beating terror? What is he going to do in a few months that he hasn’t done in 13 year?

“Oh yes, and there’s that little matter with the indictment.“

But since Mr Netanyahu insists on serving the next few months as prime minister, and no-one in Likud but Saar is planning to move him, a third election still seems unavoidable — at least for now.

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