The embattled hardline prime minister is sinking into further trouble as a new challenger from his Likud Party emerges to oppose him.
As Israel’s Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit indicted the country’s longest serving Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last week, the decision finally appears to have ruffled the governing right-wing Likud Party’s feathers, triggering infighting within the party.
After the indictment was announced, which charged Netanyahu with bribery, fraud and breach of trust, a first for a sitting prime minister in Israeli political history, Gideon Sa’ar, a former minister and a popular Likud party politician, openly challenged Bibi’s leadership.
Over the weekend, Sa'ar called snap party primaries, declaring his candidacy for the leadership to save the party from a possible disastrous third election, which has never happened in the country’s history.
"We're not that far from losing control of the country to our adversaries," Sa'ar said during a televised speech.
Netanyahu’s Likud and its allies were not able to win a majority in the April elections, where former military general Benny Gantz made substantial inroads to be the new face of Israel, challenging Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition.
Gantz refused to form a government with Likud if the party’s candidate for the premier is Netanyahu because of the corruption investigations.
In rerun September elections, the political situation hardly changed and both Netanyahu and Gantz were unable to form governments. If in two-and-a-half weeks the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, does not form a government, the country will go to an unprecedented third election.
“I have not heard a single person who thinks that after a third or fourth or fifth or sixth election that Prime Minister Netanyahu will succeed in forming a government,” Sa'ar said.
"I am appealing to the prime minister so that we can end this crisis, which you said was the reason we're being ridiculed around the world. How long will we continue like this as a society?" Sa'ar asked.
But his challenge met with immediate condemnation from Likud, which found his statements “unfortunate”, showing “zero loyalty and maximum subversion" as Netanyahu was fighting “on all fronts” for Israel’s security.
On the other hand, Netanyahu, who has led Likud since 2005, is not used to facing a leadership challenge in a party known for its stiff discipline, appears to be accepting the idea of a snap primary in the next six weeks.
Sa’ar: A calculating lowkey challenger
Before Sa’ar’s announcement of his candidacy against Netanyahu, Bibi appeared to run into serious trouble with the Israeli establishment on multiple fronts from his corruption investigations to the emergence of Gantz, an energetic military leader, backed by many generals.
Sa'ar’s challenge could be the last nail in his coffin. The former interior minister under Netanyahu is not an ordinary politician, instead, someone he is someone who has been biding his time for the right moment.
Netanyahu made most of his political contenders irrelevant during his long reign in power. But Sa'ar, peacefully resigned from politics and was a loyal Likud member from the outside power circles as well as his popularity with the party base.
Before he temporarily retired from politics, Sa'ar was winning primaries by wide margins second only to Netanyahu. After the April elections, he made a return to political life.
He also has a chance to win favour through an increasingly paranoid Israeli electorate because he is a typical Likud politician with hawkish views, opposing any two-state solution, and is ready to go after Palestinians in as harsh a manner as Netanyahu.
More trouble on the way
The attorney general, appointed by Netanyahu, charged Bibi and came out with a new statement lately saying he will provide a legal “opinion” about whether the prime minister can hold the premiership post after indictment.
Netanyahu described the attorney general’s charges as “tainted” saying that the indictment amounts to an “attempted coup”.
But a lot of people disagree.
“Thus, aided and abetted by his spineless partners, Netanyahu is entrenching himself, going to the mattresses, gearing for a long siege, pledging to fight until his last breath or until Israeli democracy collapses onto itself and capitulates to his every whim,” wrote Chemi Shalev, Haaretz columnist.
“Instead of a dignified exit or at least a time-out in which he could try to prove his self-proclaimed innocence, Netanyahu will have to be dragged kicking and screaming from his sanctuary in the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem,” Shalev added.
Netanyahu was evasive when a reporter asked if he will seek parliamentary immunity to avoid the ongoing prosecution.
“Well, now, you’re asking much more complicated questions,” he responded and walked away.