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Likud says Netanyahu considering snap leadership primary

Moments after the statement was released, Israeli prime minister's rival Gideon Saar tweets: 'I'm ready'
Last October, Netanyahu, left, accused Saar, right, of 'concocting a subversive trick' to be able to serve as prime minister in his stead (AFP)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is considering calling a snap leadership primary election to dispel the "illusion of a rebellion" within Likud, the party said on Thursday. 

“The purpose of the move is shattering the illusion of a ‘rebellion in Likud’ that other parties are wishing for, something which is holding them up from joining a unity government,” Likud said in a statement.

Moments after the announcement was released, Netanyahu's Likud rival Gideon Saar tweeted: “I’m ready.” 

Likud MK Michal Shir told Israel's Channel 12 news that “if there are indeed primaries” for the party’s leadership she would back her former boss Saar.

Shir stressed, however, that Likud had not yet decided it was holding leadership primaries.

The Likud statement comes as Netanyahu is struggling to form a government after last month’s elections, with the rival Blue and White party ruling out sitting in government with him due to his pending corruption charges and rejecting his calls to join him in a coalition of right-wing and religious parties.

The announcement also comes as the new Knesset was sworn in on Thursday and as Netanyahu’s lawyers attend a second day of pre-indictment hearings in a series of cases the premier faces charges in.

'Act wisely and responsibly'

Netanyahu appears to be working to head off any attempts within his own party to replace him as its leader, if as expected he fails in his efforts to form a new government in coming days. 

The move aims to prevent a revolt by Likud party Knesset members who may try to receive the mandate from the president to form the next government.

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Last October, Netanyahu accused Saar of “concocting a subversive trick” to be able to serve as prime minister in his stead once Likud wins the next elections, and had approached several party members to garner support.

Foreign Minister Yisrael Katz said in a statement that he supported Netanyahu “should an early Knesset election be held,” adding that “the entire Likud will unite around Netanyahu as candidate from prime minister” but made no direct reference to Netanyahu’s primary election proposal.

“I call on [Blue and White leader Benny] Gantz and his friends to act wisely and responsibly, and allow the formation of a broad government, as election results and the president’s proposal dictate,” Katz added.

'An important and noble step'

Netanyahu and Yisrael Beiteinu's Avigdor Lieberman met on Thursday for the first time since Israel's 17 September election, but Likud said "there was no breakthrough" in the stalled coalition talks.

Liberman, whose party holds the balance of power in the Knesset, has pushed for a unity government consisting of Yisrael Beiteinu, Likud and Blue and White.

The Times of Israel said the talks between the two men lasted only an hour.

“Netanyahu offered Lieberman to join the government as soon as possible, to enable the formation of a national unity government,” Likud said in a statement.

Yisrael Beiteinu, reiterating support for a broad coalition, said "the right way forward is agreeing on shared fundamentals between Yisrael Beiteinu, Likud and Blue and White" before discussing the makeup of the government. 

Following the talks with Netanyahu, Lieberman was seen dining with Blue and White number two Yair Lapid in the Knesset cafeteria.

On Thursday, Lapid agreed to give up his agreement with Gantz to rotate as prime minister if the party leads the next government.

Praising Lapid's actions, Lieberman said: “This is an important and noble step.”