JERUSALEM — 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 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.
"For years I have been working for you for the sake of our beloved country. Now I am asking for your support," Netanyahu wrote on Facebook. "A big victory for me in the primaries will ensure a huge victory in the Knesset elections."
Saar, who has garnered support from a handful of Likud backbenchers, had seen a bump in support in the lead-up to the vote and he 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. In what was seen as an embarrassment at a critical moment a day before the primary, Netanyahu was rushed off stage after a rocket was fired from Gaza, setting off an air raid siren, at a campaign rally in the southern city of Ashkelon on Wednesday. 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.
Polls close at 11 p.m. and results are expected early Friday.
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.
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 and while the two professed eagerness to form a unity government, they differed on its composition and who would lead it, deepening the stalemate.
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.