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Benjamin Netanyahu fights off rival to lead Likud in Israeli election

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Via Financial Times

Benjamin Netanyahu has proclaimed a “gigantic victory” in Thursday’s Likud party primaries that saw him fend off a would-be successor ahead of the country’s third national elections.

Gideon Sa’ar, a former cabinet minister who sought to wrest control of the long-ruling party from the embattled Mr Netanyahu, conceded defeat early Friday morning.

“I congratulate the prime minister on his victory in the primaries,” Mr Sa’ar said. “My friends and I are standing behind him in the campaign for the victory of the Likud in the elections.”

Bad weather across the country drove down voter turnout among the 116,000 registered Likud members, with only 49 per cent casting ballots. The Likud party said that the final results after tallying all 106 voting stations was 72.5 per cent to Mr Netanyahu and 27.5 per cent to Mr Sa’ar.

“Thank you to the Likud members for their trust, support and love,” Mr Netanyahu wrote on social media. “With God’s help and your help, I will lead Likud to a great victory in the upcoming elections and will continue to lead the state of Israel to unprecedented achievements.”

Mr Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, sought to shore up support within his party with a decisive victory over Mr Sa’ar as he faces a third national election in under 12 months, and after he was indicted on corruption charges last month.

Gideon Saar, a popular Likud party member and a challenger to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Likud party leadership primaries, speaks to supporters in Rishon Lezion, Israel December 26, 2019. REUTERS/Amir Cohen
Gideon Sa’ar garnered less than 30 per cent of Likud party members who cast their votes © Reuters

Neither Mr Netanyahu nor his main rival, Benny Gantz of the Blue and White party, managed to cobble together a majority in the 120-seat Knesset in the wake September’s inconclusive election.

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Israelis will again go to the polls on March 2, 2020.

Mr Netanyahu’s legal woes came to a head when he was charged in November by attorney-general Avichai Mandelblit with fraud, breach of trust and bribery, in a series of cases involving his ties with media magnates and billionaire friends. It was the first time a seated Israeli prime minister had been charged with criminal offences.

Mr Netanyahu has denied any wrongdoing and has dismissed the charges as being part of an “attempted coup” by law enforcement officials.

Mr Mandelblit is expected to deliver a legal opinion next week on whether Mr Netanyahu can assemble a government despite the indictments against him, ahead of a Supreme Court hearing on the matter.

Though Mr Netanyahu is not legally required to resign, it remains uncertain whether Israel’s president — a figurehead who must invite elected lawmakers to form a government — can issue such a request to a parliamentarian facing indictment.

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