JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel’s governing Likud party was holding primaries on Thursday, in the first serious internal challenge to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in his more than a decade in power.
Veteran politician Gideon Saar hopes to unseat Netanyahu, arguing that he will be better placed to form a government in national elections in March after Netanyahu failed to do so twice in two repeat elections this year.
Despite the shadow of corruption indictments hanging over him, Netanyahu remains popular among Likud members and the fiercely loyal party, which has only had four leaders since its inception in the 1970s, has stood firmly behind the long-serving leader. He is expected to defeat Saar handily and a win could strengthen his hand going into the next national vote.
But Saar, who has garnered support from a handful of Likud backbenchers, could benefit from stormy weather that may keep turnout low. If he wins, he would become Likud’s candidate for prime minister in the March polls.
“We are imbued with the spirit of victory,” lawmaker Yoav Kisch, Saar’s campaign manager, told Israeli Army Radio. “This candidacy is good for the party and I believe can also bring the change and the hope for a revolution in the Likud.”
Netanyahu faces charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust in three corruption cases in which he is accused of trading legislative or regulatory favors in exchange for lavish gifts or favorable media coverage. He denies wrongdoing and has waged an angry campaign against the media and law enforcement officials he said are bent on ousting him from office. His supporters have tried to paint Saar as part of the same conspiracy.
Polls close at 11 p.m. and results are expected early Friday.