Is­raeli law­maker aims to oust Netanyahu in Likud pri­mary

The Saline Courier - - NEWS - By Tia Gold­en­berg

JERUSALEM — Is­rael’s gov­ern­ing Likud party was hold­ing a pri­mary vote on Thurs­day in the first se­ri­ous in­ter­nal chal­lenge to 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 can win to­day, to set forth on a new path that will al­low us to form a strong and sta­ble govern­ment, that will al­low us to unite the peo­ple of Is­rael which is prob­a­bly the most im­por­tant thing right now,” Saar told re­porters.

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.

The 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.

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