Netanyahu: ‘I’ll win big!’, agrees to primary vote for Likud party leadership

“I’ll win big,” the prime minister says. His main challenger has been calling for leadership primaries for weeks.

By Batya Jerenberg, World Israel News

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has agreed to hold primaries for the leadership of his party before new elections, which are set for March 2.

As the 22nd Knesset draws its last breath barring a political surprise that few say is possible as the deadline for a coalition agreement is Wednesday, Netanyahu’s office issued a statement saying the prime minister is willing to hold a contest for party leadership.

“The prime minister will not oppose the primaries. If the decision is made to have general elections, there will be primaries for Likud leader, and Prime Minister Netanyahu will win overwhelmingly,” the statement read.

So far, only senior Likud MK Gideon Sa’ar has declared his candidacy to run against Netanyahu, and he has called for such a race often over the last few weeks.

Sa’ar says that if Netanyahu couldn’t form a government after the last two elections this year, the chance of him doing so after a third round was equally unlikely and it was more important that the Likud should stay in power, suggesting that Netanyahu would pull the party down with him.

“I congratulate Prime Minister Netanyahu for his announcement on holding agreed-upon primaries for leadership of the Likud,” he said in response to the statement.

“The Likud is the biggest political movement in Israel and has a magnificent democratic tradition. We’ll have a positive election campaign, respectful and clean, in which I will present clear plans and positions in all policy fields. The Likud members will decide.”

When the party’s central committee met on Sunday, Sa’ar was booed when he called for a leadership vote. Netanyahu supporters booed him and have accused him of back-stabbing the prime minister.

“The attempts to delegitimize and badmouth those who seek to run is contrary to the character of the Likud,” Sa’ar said, obliquely hinting at remarks by some fellow MKs, who also accused him of treasonous behavior.

Sa’ar said that former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon ran against a sitting prime minister, Yitzhak Shamir. But when he lost, he united behind Shamir and the party won the elections. Sa’ar has said he will unite behind Netanyahu as well if he doesn’t win the primaries.

“A democratic race strengthens the party,” he said.

Sa’ar has an uphill battle ahead of him, as time is short and Netanyahu is still extraordinarily popular among party members, despite being recently indicted for corruption in three cases.

Only two Likud MKs have publicly supported Sa’ar – his former parliamentary aide Michal Shir, and Yoav Kisch, a former chairman of the Land of Israel lobby in the Knesset.