Is Netanyahu Finally Facing a Full-scale Likud Rebellion?

Likud lawmaker Gideon Sa’ar has been back in frontline politics for more than two years — after taking a break before the 2015 Knesset election — and until now he’s not been in any hurry to unseat Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He has been biding his time, like everyone else in Likud, waiting for Netanyahu’s eventual departure. He said last month that when a leadership primary is held, he’ll contest it. But he wasn’t pushing for it to be held just yet.

Then, though, he said Thursday that if a new election is held next March, he’d demand that Likud hold a primary before it. And then, on Saturday, he went on television and said that, following the corruption indictment against Netanyahu, a primary must be held immediately.

Why the sudden rush? Netanyahu is on his last legs anyway, so why take on his hordes of supporters in Likud when they are at their most angry?

Sa’ar knows full well that Likud never deposed its leader in its entire history. That’s going back not only to 1973, when Likud was founded as a political grouping, but to the very birth of the Zionist-Revisionist movement in 1923. Never was there a movement so loyal. So what makes Sa’ar think it would be in his political interest to position himself at the head of a pointless rebellion?

One of Sa’ar’s closest advisers said a couple of weeks ago that “Gideon knows he’ll almost certainly lose to Bibi, but he’s positioning himself as the main alternative on the day after.” But running in the leadership primary is not the same as calling for one to be held immediately, as Sa’ar is doing now. That’s even assuming he can get the necessary votes — two-thirds of Likud Central Committee members — to hold a primary at such short notice.

As of last Thursday, not only is Israel led for the first time by a prime minister under indictment. It is also the first time following an election that two separate candidates failed to form a government. Israel is in the final 21-day period in which a government can be formed, after which another election — the third in 12 months — has to be held by law. Sa’ar believes that this combination of precedents gives him a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

The key line in his television interview Saturday was when he said, “I haven’t heard one person who thinks that after a third election, or a fourth, or a fifth, or a sixth, Prime Minister Netanyahu will succeed in forming a government. There are two possibilities: This crazy situation in which the country has been stuck for a year; or, God forbid, power passing to our political rivals — and we’re not far from that.”