TEL AVIV – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu acquiesced Monday to demands that his Likud party hold leadership primaries if new elections are called, pitting the prime minister against his main challenger within the party, MK Gideon Sa’ar.
“The prime minister won’t oppose primaries. If there are general elections there will be primaries for the Likud leadership and Prime Minister Netanyahu will have a big victory,” a statement from the Likud said.
For his part, Sa’ar, who last month called for primaries, welcomed the announcement.
“I welcome the statement from Prime Minister Netanyahu on holding primaries for the leadership of Likud. Likud is the biggest political movement in Israel and has a great democratic tradition,” Sa’ar wrote on Twitter.
“We will hold a positive, respectful and clean vote in which I will clarify plans and positions on all policy areas. Likud members will decide,” Sa’ar said.
Despite the legal cases facing him, Netanyahu is expected to win the primaries by a landslide.
So far only two lawmakers, MK Yoav Kisch and MK Michal Shir, have publicly endorsed Sa’ar for the party leadership.
On Monday, Netanyahu appealed to Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman with the offer of premiership rotation in a last ditch effort to form a government. Liberman rejected the offer, saying a narrow coalition of 63 MKs would be “perilous” for Israel’s future.
The effort came after Blue and White leader Benny Gantz called on Netanyahu to give up on immunity legislation in return for entering talks, while the party’s number two, Yair Lapid, said that in a third election only Gantz would run for prime minister.
Netanyahu denounced the move as “empty spin” and “transparent trickery.”
“They refused every offer to form a wide unity government,” Netanyahu said. “Now, when there are only two days left, they are demanding conditions merely to talk.”
In response, Blue and White released a statement saying: “The only thing that is transparent is Netanyahu’s desire to lead Israel to an additional round of elections with the sole purpose of seeking immunity. Netanyahu, set Israel free [from yourself].”
The parties agreed that if no government is formed by Wednesday at midnight, elections will be held on March 2.