Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits an Israeli army base in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights on November 24 2019. Picture: REUTERS/ ATEF SAFADI
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits an Israeli army base in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights on November 24 2019. Picture: REUTERS/ ATEF SAFADI

Jerusalem — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sought to foil a rare open challenge to his leadership of Israel’s governing party as he tries to navigate the most perilous crisis of his political career. 

The country’s longest-serving premier, famous for getting out of the tightest political corners, was indicted last week on bribery and fraud charges. A would-be heir is now taking advantage of that increased vulnerability to try to dethrone Netanyahu, who failed twice to form a government after elections earlier in 2019.

On Sunday Likud legislator Gideon Saar called on the party to hold a snap leadership contest within a couple of weeks, claiming that he — unlike Netanyahu — could “easily form a government”.

The rival Blue and White bloc led by former military chief Benny Gantz is willing to team up with Likud as long as it’s not headed by Netanyahu. A unity administration would avert an unprecedented third national election in less than 12 months, ending a period of intense political paralysis at a time of economic and security challenges.

Netanyahu has parried by agreeing to hold the leadership race while insisting, according to media reports, on a six-week window. That could push the contest beyond a December 11 deadline for any legislator to try to build a majority in parliament, likely sending the country to another round of voting and bolstering Netanyahu’s position.

That’s because Likud would likely be reluctant to field anyone other than the experienced Netanyahu to face off against Gantz, whose bloc won the most parliamentary seats in the September 17 revote. What’s more, the Likud leadership race will be decided in its central committee, a group of more than 3,500 party members who have overwhelmingly supported Netanyahu in the past.

“He is still fighting, and though there are preliminary signs in Likud that some are beginning to pull away, Netanyahu hasn’t had the last word yet,” said Gidi Rahat, a political scientist affiliated with Hebrew University and the Israeli Democracy Institute research centre. “He is fighting for his life and to him nothing else matters.”

The December 11 deadline was set in motion after both Netanyahu and Gantz failed to form a government following the September vote.

Saar — a former minister who left Likud over disagreements with Netanyahu but recently returned with strong backing — is the only senior party member to openly challenge the prime minister. Channel 13 news reported on Friday that some senior Likud members were discussing how to shunt Netanyahu aside.

This has been Netanyahu’s toughest year yet, and not only on the legal front, where he’s become the first sitting Israeli leader to face criminal charges. His snap elections gambit backfired, and he ended up leading the country into two inconclusive rounds of balloting.

Polls commissioned since the indictment showed about half of those questioned said Netanyahu shouldn’t continue to serve, and about one-third said he should. However, they suggest that support for Likud would be more or less unchanged should a third election be held.

The prime minister, who denies wrongdoing, has accused law enforcement of trying to stage a coup against him and has vowed to continue to lead the country.

According to one interpretation of Israeli law, Netanyahu is allowed to remain in office until he’s exhausted all avenues of appeal. But others argue that there is judicial precedent to force him to resign because the high court has impelled other politicians to step down after they were indicted on serious charges including bribery.

Bloomberg