A senior Israeli politician has challenged Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for leadership of the Likud party in the first serious internal threat to his extended reign.
Gideon Saar, one of several well-known names in right-wing Israeli politics, threw down the gauntlet to Netanyahu in a TV interview on Saturday evening, calling for snap primaries.
Days earlier, shortly after coalition negotiations to form a unity government finally broke down, Israel’s attorney-general announced that Netanyahu was being indicted for bribery, fraud and breach of trust, with a criminal trial set to take place.
Netanyahu, who is refusing to step down and who denies any wrongdoing, is now the first sitting Israeli prime minister ever to have been indicted.
His legal woes were a major stumbling block in negotiations between him and former military chief Benny Gantz, who jointly leads the Blue and White party with Yair Lapid, but until now senior Likud politicians have refused to .
Israelis have voted in two general elections already this year and Saar said Likud needed a change in leadership in order to avoid “a third, fourth, fifth or sixth election,” as the parliamentary arithmetic continues to create a situation of deadlock.
A former interior and education minister who is opposed to a Palestinian state, Saar is one of several heavy-hitters in Likud who have always lined up behind Netanyahu – until now.
Others who may declare an interest in running for the party leadership in the coming days include former Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat, finance minister Moshe Kahlon, strategic affairs minister Gilad Erdan and Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein.
Analysts say Saar, 52, who in 2014 took two years out of the political spotlight, is the most likely to succeed Netanyahu, and the challenger has always been upfront about his ambitions.
In an interview with the Washington Post in 2017, reflecting on his return to politics a year earlier, he said: “I am not in a rush to become prime minister, but I said clearly upon my return that I intend to lead the party and the country in the future.”
In the same interview, he said of Likud: “There is a tradition in the party of always backing the leader, although people might act differently if they thought the leader had abandoned the party’s path.”
Saar is married to one of Israel’s top journalists, Geula Even Star, making them an “Israeli power couple” in the eyes of some.