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Israeli PM Netanyahu faces internal challenge in Likud primary

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FILE PHOTO: In this Thursday, Oct. 3, 2019 photo, Gideon Saar, attends the swearing-in of the new Israel's parliament in Jerusalem.
FILE PHOTO: In this Thursday, Oct. 3, 2019 photo, Gideon Saar, attends the swearing-in of the new Israel's parliament in Jerusalem.   -  
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AP Photo/Ariel Schalit - Ariel Schalit
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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faces his first serious internal challenge at his Likud party's primaries on Thursday after 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 repeat elections this year.

Saar, who has held various ministerial positions from 2009 to 2014, is a well-known political figure in Israel, Mitchell Barak, a pollster and political analyst, told Euronews.

Yet his chances of winning the primary are slim, the expert said, adding that the key question was whether he would get more than 25% of the votes.

Polling stations closed at 11 pm local time on Thursday. Just under fifty percent of 116,000 eligible voters cast ballots, with many apparently deterred by the weather.

Netanyahu still favourite

Despite the shadow of corruption indictments hanging over him, Netanyahu remains popular among Likud members.

Israeli media predicted a Netanyahu landslide. Channel 12, a major television station, said initial results showed a ``significant gap`` between the candidates.

But Saar, who has earned 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 has portrayed Saar as inexperienced while depicting himself as a security buff and master of international diplomacy.

Still, in what was seen as an embarrassment at a critical moment a day before the primary, Netanyahu was rushed off stage at a campaign rally in the southern city of Ashkelon after a rocket was fired from Gaza, setting off an air raid siren.

READ MORE: Israel strikes Gaza in retaliation for rocket attack near Netanyahu campaign event

A similar incident happened in September when Netanyahu was in the nearby city of Ashdod campaigning for the second general Israeli election of the year.

Corruption charges

Netanyahu faces charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust in three corruption cases in which he is accused of trading legislative or regulatory favours in exchange for lavish gifts or favourable media coverage. He denies wrongdoing and has blamed media and law enforcement officials who he says are bent on ousting him from office.

READ MORE: Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu rejects corruption charges as an 'attempted coup'

The indictments against Netanyahu came amid months of political deadlock in Israel, which after two inconclusive elections is headed toward a third unprecedented national vote in less than a year.

Netanyahu's main rival, former military chief Benny Gantz was also unable to form a government.

Both politicians were eager to form a unity government but differed on its composition and leadership, deepening the stalemate.

READ MORE: Israel faces prospect of third general election in a year

Recent polls show that with Saar as leader, Likud would make a more powerful bloc with its natural ultra-Orthodox and nationalist allies.

Saar would also be in an easier position to create a national unity government with the centrist Blue and White party if, as expected, the upcoming March election produces a deadlock like the previous two rounds have.

"I think [the primary] will be good for the Likud ultimately," Barak told Euronews.

For Saar, no matter the outcome, challenging Netanyahu "shows a sense of leadership," the expert noted.

The primaries might also prove to strengthen Netanyahu's hand going into the next national vote, offering him an opportunity to appear "more determined and motivated than ever," he added.

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