Yisrael Beytenu Chairman Avigdor Liberman has met with senior Likud officials to discuss replacing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as party leader if he fails to secure a 61-member bloc in the Knesset after the September 17 elections, Ynet has learned.
Netanyahu hit back furiously, saying Liberman was trying to avoid a right-wing government and that only he could manage the relationship with the U.S. under Donald Trump.
In a closed-door meeting at the Likud headquarters, Liberman said he had met with Likud MKs and mayors as well as members of the Likud central committee.
In their estimation, at least two-thirds of the Likud party is praying that Netanyahu does not get 61 seats, Liberman said.
"The time will come to replace the Likud nominee for forming a coalition," said Liberman, who was Netanyahu's chief of staff before entering politics and later his defense minister.
Those who were present at the Likud offices in Or Yehuda during Liberman's appearance said that he claimed he had spoken to a few prominent and influential members inside the Likud.
Apparently, Liberman said, there were already intense talks going on between several key Likud people about the future of the party after Netanyahu.
"It's unbelievable that those who so recently signed a declaration of loyalty to Bibi are so eager to get rid of him," said Liberman, referring to the prime minister by his nickname.
"In their estimation, at least two-thirds of the party is praying that Netanyahu does not get 61 seats (out of the 120-member parliament). If this situation does indeed arise, they are adamant they will not take part in dissolving the Knesset again and heading into yet another election.
"If the situation does call for it, they will be able to change leadership at the earliest given opportunity. They claim the Likud will be able to choose different leadership to form a government without going through the hassle (of elections). As for a permanent chairman, they will need to conduct primaries once the government is established."
Liberman's words came said after Netanyahu tried to stall the possibility that his own party members would want to replace him as Likud leader, asking members to sign a loyalty pledge stating that none of them mean to replace him on the day after the elections. All members of the Likud signed the petition.
The push to replace Netanyahu came after Liberman said that if the prime minister was not able to put together a government, he would actively act to advance another candidate from the Likud in his place, and mentioned Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein - who also signed Netanyahu's loyalty pledge - as a possible replacement.
Liberman also attacked Netanyahu for the pledge, calling it a "North Korean-style petition" that was a "disgrace to every member of the Likud - it only shows the lack of faith Netanyahu has in his party members."
Liberman later told Ynet that Netanyahu was irrelevant from the minute he announced he would not form a broad coalition government. He also claimed that Yamina leader and former justice minister Ayelet Shaked would not back Netanyahu for prime minister.
"What's interesting is that if you listen closely to what Ayelet Shaked and (far-right Transportation Minister Bezalel) Smotrich have to say, you understand their intention to recommend Bibi for prime minister is nonexistent. I don't think they'd even recommend him as the chairman of the Public Inquiries Department (at the Justice Ministry). There's a real rift there, coupled with Ayelet Shaked's own ambition."
Netanyahu slammed his former ally for what he said was an attempt to install a left-wing government in his place.
"If you vote for Liberman, you vote for a government under (Blue and White leaders Benny) Gantz and (Yair) Lapid, is that what you want?" Netanyahu said.
He also claimed that he was the only person who could lead Israel when U.S. President Donald Trump unveils his long-awaited Middle East peace plan in the immediate aftermath of the elections.
"I have a feeling it would be very soon after the elections," he said. "Who do you want to negotiate with Trump over the deal of the century - me at the head of a right-wing government, or Gantz and Lapid?
"Do you really think Trump or (Russian President Vladimir) Putin will be impressed by Gantz and Lapid? This is the question at the center of the coming elections, because the political topic is to meet us at full strength in a few weeks. Who's going to lead Israel in this critical moment? That pair? They can barely run their own party."
'No longer whispers'
Blue and White co-leader Yair Lapid told Ynet that, "Liberman is right. There's talk about it inside the Likud - it's no longer only whispers."
The Democratic Union - a joint list of Meretz, Ehud Barak's Democratic Israel party and Labor defector Stav Shaffir - said: "The days of the suspect in Balfour Street (the prime minister's Jerusalem residence) in government are numbered, the panic on Balfour Street will only grow stronger; the incitement will only get more intense.
"Israel's image as a democratic country is at stake - these are the most important elections in decades. This government of criminal suspects needs to be replaced by a true democratic government, one that will determine Israel's image as it was written in the Israeli Declaration of Independence. That is the only way for a truly democratic country."