JERUSALEM - In the first sign of rebellion within Israel's ruling right-wing Likud, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's top party rival called for a leadership primary should the country, as expected, go into an unprecedented third election in less than a year.
Gideon Saar's remarks came as Israel's ceremonial president announced that for the first time in the country's history, no candidate has been able to form a government following recent elections, setting the beleaguered nation on a course for yet another vote after two inconclusive results.
Reuven Rivlin formally informed parliament that neither Netanyahu nor his chief challenger, retired military chief Benny Gantz, have completed the task of building a coalition in the time allotted to them. The expiration of the presidential mandate kicks off the final 21-day window before new elections must be called.
Rivlin called it a “miserable political situation” and pleaded with lawmakers to find some form of compromise.
“This is one of the most important times for soul-searching the state of Israel has known,” he told parliament. “Let there be no illusions: this politics of disruption has to stop ... each one of you should look to their conscience and answer one question: `What is my duty to the state of Israel?”'
First to step into the fray was Saar, a former aide and senior Cabinet minister under Netanyahu, who said he supported the establishment of a unity government to avert such an election, but that he would be a better fit to make that happen than Netanyahu, who faces an expected indictment on corruption charges in the coming days.
“If we go to new elections, it will not be reasonable to think that the prime minister will be successful in forming a government after the third elections,” he said at the Jerusalem Post Diplomatic Conference in Jerusalem. “I think I will be able to form a government, and I think I will be able to unite the country and the nation.”
Netanyahu, Gantz or any other sitting lawmaker, including Saar, can hypothetically present the backing of a majority of parliament's 120 members in the coming three weeks. But given the prolonged stalemate and unsuccessful mediation efforts it increasingly appears the country is headed toward yet another vote. Opinion polls are already predicting a very similar deadlock, signaling additional months of horse-trading and uncertainty.
The only plausible way out of a third election — and the prolonged political paralysis that has gripped Israel for the past year — would be a unity government between Netanyahu's ruling Likud and Gantz's centrist Blue and White party.
Blue and White edged Likud by one seat in the previous election and together they could control a parliamentary majority. Both Netanyahu and Gantz have expressed an overall openness to the concept but during weeks of talks they could not agree on the terms of a power-sharing agreement, including who would serve first as prime minister.
Netanyahu has refused to drop his alliance with smaller nationalist and ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties, which was a non-starter for kingmaker politician Avigdor Lieberman.
But the main sticking point has revolved around Netanyahu himself.
The long-time Israeli leader is desperate to remain in office as he prepares for the expected indictment. Gantz's Blue and White refuses to sit under Netanyahu while he faces such serious legal problems but has said it has no problem with Likud if he is removed from the equation.
Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit has recommended that Netanyahu be indicted on fraud, breach of trust and bribery charges in three separate cases. Though Netanyahu will not be compelled by law to step down immediately, it will certainly harden opposition to his continued rule.
There don't appear to be unbridgeable gaps between Likud and Blue and White and the impasse has mostly revolved around personnel.
“Israeli politics is very personalized and the partners of Benny Gantz are not willing to operate with Netanyahu personally and therefore there is no real future I believe in unity government if the parties will stay as they are now,” said Yedidia Stern of the non-partisan Israel Democracy Institute. “Israel is entering now an unknown territory from a political point of view, a constitutional point of view ... nobody knows what will happen.”
Everyday Israelis appear equally exasperated.
“The future right now is very disturbing, unless someone with courage stands up and says `I am willing to concede so we will have a unity government,”' said Jerusalem resident Chaim Frenkel. “I don't think the next elections will change anything.”
The emergence of Saar as an heir could reshuffle the deck, but challenging Netanyahu in Likud is a risky maneuver in a party that fiercely values loyalty and has had only four leaders in its 70-plus-year history.
A former lawyer and journalist, Saar was first brought into politics 20 years ago by Netanyahu, who made him his Cabinet secretary during his first term in office. Saar then established himself as a staunch nationalist who opposed Israel's 2005 withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and resisted the prospect of a Palestinian state. He quickly rose in the Likud ranks, twice finishing first in internal elections for its parliamentary list and enjoying successful stints as education minister and interior minister after Netanyahu returned to power in 2009.
But as with others in Likud who saw their popularity rise, he too began to be perceived by Netanyahu as a threat. He quit politics in 2014 to spend more time with his new wife, Israeli TV anchor Geula Even, and their young children, before making his comeback this year.
Despite his hard-line positions, Saar is liked and respected across the political spectrum and could prove a far more comfortable partner for unity with Gantz if elected head of Likud.