By Dan Williams and Ari Rabinovitch
JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party will hold a leadership vote, a Likud challenger said on Sunday, as pressure mounted on the veteran leader to step aside after his indictment on corruption charges.
Israeli media reported the Likud primary would be held in six weeks. A party spokesman was not reachable to confirm the timeline.
Gideon Saar, a Likud lawmaker who has challenged Netanyahu, wrote on Twitter that he “welcomes the prime minister’s agreement to hold primaries for party leadership.”
Netanyahu’s indictment last Thursday came amid political disarray in Israel, after neither Netanyahu nor his main challenger in the general election, centrist Benny Gantz, secured a majority in parliament in April and September votes.
Netanyahu has denied the charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust and said he would stay in office and defend himself.
The four-term conservative leader projected business as usual on Sunday, touring the country’s northern frontier and ramping up rhetoric about Iranian threats.
Israel’s Supreme Court dismissed a petition by a watchdog group to force Netanyahu to step aside.
The Movement for Quality Government in Israel had said in its court filing that the first criminal charges against a sitting prime minister constituted “the crossing of a red line and a grave blow to public trust in ruling institutions”.
The court dismissed the petition to force Netanyahu to resign or temporarily recuse himself from office. It said the watchdog had not yet exhausted other avenues, such as petitioning Netanyahu directly and Israel’s attorney general.
For his part, Netanyahu kept his focus on security and toured the Golan Heights with top military brass.
“I am doing everything needed to carry out government work, Cabinet work … in all necessary ways, to ensure the security of the citizens of Israel and the things that are crucial for Israel,” he said in a video statement.
He reiterated concerns over Iran’s attempt to entrench itself militarily in a number of Middle East countries and said Israel “will act to prevent Iran’s attempt to make Iraq and Yemen bases for rocket and missile launches against Israel.”
But Israeli news coverage remained focused on the political challenge. Commentators said other court petitions could follow.
Gantz’s mandate to form a government – after an unsuccessful attempt by Netanyahu to do so – expired on Wednesday. The next day, Israel’s president declared a three-week period in which lawmakers can nominate one of their own to try to put together a ruling coalition.
Should that fail, a new election – Israel’s third in a year – will be triggered.
Netanyahu’s hope of securing that parliamentary nomination was challenged by Saar.
“There is only one way in which we can save the country, extricate it from the crisis and ensure the Likud’s continued rule – and that is if we go to snap primaries today, within these 21 days,” Saar told Israel’s Channel 12 television.
A less adversarial proposal was launched by a second Likud lawmaker, Nir Barkat, who called for nominating a deputy to Netanyahu who would take his place should he be forced to take a leave of absence.
Saar previously said he would consider running for the top Likud slot.
While voicing appreciation for Netanyahu’s record-long term and noting he was innocent until proven otherwise, Saar criticised the premier’s attempts to cast his criminal prosecution as a “coup attempt” involving police, prosecutors and the media.
“Not only is it wrong to say that, it’s also irresponsible to say that. It’s completely out of touch,” Saar said.
The Likud party spokesman earlier in the day dismissed the challenge.
“It is sad to see that while Prime Minister Netanyahu keeps Israel safe on all fronts and works to preserve Likud rule, Gideon Saar, as is his wont, is displaying zero loyalty and maximum subversion,” the spokesman said.
(Reporting by Dan Williams and Ari Rabinovitch; Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Jane Merriman and Peter Cooney)