Bibi Netanyahu’s chief rival for leadership of the ruling Likud Party, Gideon Saar, has made the first move in challenging the prime minister’s formerly impregnable position as party leader. Amidst a swirling series of corruption indictments announced this week by attorney general Avichai Mandelblit, the Israeli leader defiantly rejected the charges and the entire investigation, calling it “an attempted coup.” He then summoned his supporters to rally around him at a protest scheduled for Tuesday.
Until that moment, support among his own party had remained robust and solid. However, yesterday Saar appeared on Israel’s Meet the Press and directly attacked Netanyahu for criticizing the state prosecution and refused to accept its findings. The challenger demanded a party primary to determine who would lead the Party into the next election. Though most Israelis have always seen Saar as the prime minister’s chief rival, the former has never attacked the latter in full frontal mode as he did in the TV interview. Equally important, Haim Katz, chair of the Likud Central Committee, joined Saar in recommending a new party primary. At least one junior Likud MK, Michal Shir, has also joined the insurgency.
Though there is little political difference between them, Saar is seen as slightly less polemical and pugnacious than Netanyahu.
Leader of the Blue and White opposition, Benny Gantz, offered a cutting appraisal of Netanyahu’s political history:
“A man who squashed and stepped on his political rivals throughout his political life, had no compassion or mercy for them even in their most difficult hour, is the last person who can now enlist the public’s support to incite against detectives, incite against judges, incite against prosecutors,” Mr. Gantz said.
He noted that Mr. Netanyahu had seized on corruption investigations into former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to demand his resignation in 2008, saying those made it impossible for him to maintain the public trust.
And Mr. Gantz recalled Mr. Netanyahu’s role in leading right-wing protests against former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in the days before his assassination in 1995. The prime minister, Mr. Gantz said, “needs to know well the dangerous price of words, which are liable to turn, heaven forbid, into lethal bullets.”
This NY Times account doesn’t quite convey the biting criticism of the last paragraph of that passage. In fact Netanyahu, in a hectoring speech worthy of Mussolini, incited a crowd of 10,000 radical settlers in October, 1995 from a balcony in Zion Square in Jerusalem. In the crowd were protesters waving doctored of images of then-Prime Minister Rabin dressed in an SS uniform, implying that his plan for territorial compromise with the Palestinians was a betrayal of Israel. Rabin’s assassin, Yigal Amir, attended that speech and three weeks later murdered Rabin. Saar is clearly blaming Netanyahu for the slain leader’s death. The challenger is also alluding to the atmosphere of violence and intimidation which has always hovered over Netanyahu’s career.
It remains to be seen whether other key figures in the Party and the leaders of other parties Netanyahu would need to form a government will join Saar in demanding Netanyahu step down. An alternative option for Netanyahu might be for him to accept an offer from Benny Gantz of Blue and White to form a unity government with the latter taking the role of prime minister for the first two years of the term–and Netanyahu taking over later if he is acquitted of the charges against him. Until now, Netanyahu has rejected this offer. But with Saar biting at his heels and the threat of a party-wide revolt against him, the current leader may accept the lesser of two evils. Such an arrangement would also avoid the unwelcome prospect of a third election in the past six months.