Benjamin Netanyahu will face a serious challenge for the leadership of his Likud party in a primary election on Thursday, capping a year in which the Israeli prime minister’s authority has been tested as never before.
Following two indecisive national election results and a criminal indictment for the Israeli leader in the past year, former cabinet minister Gideon Sa’ar is now posing the first real challenge to his decade-long dominance of the ruling Likud party.
A victory for Mr Sa’ar would be a huge upset and a death knell for Mr Netanyahu’s political career, stranding him as a lame duck caretaker leader until another general election due in March. Conversely, a landslide win would be a vote of confidence that would reduce the political potency of his indictment on corruption charges.
Mr Sa’ar, a former interior minister, has managed to muster support from a handful of Likud parliamentarians and expose discontent with Mr Netanyahu’s leadership in the party ranks.
But it remains a long shot that he can win over a majority of the party’s 116,000 members. Results of the primary vote are due late Thursday.
Mr Netanyahu is Israel’s longest serving prime minister, having held office for three consecutive terms and a stint in the late 1990s. He is seeking another term, but has failed to win enough votes to form a governing coalition in two elections this year.
A few days after an unprecedented third election was called, Mr Sa’ar told supporters at a rally announcing his run that Mr Netanyahu “brought us to power four times, but the writing is on the wall. There won’t be a fifth time.”
A poll of Likud voters published last month by the Hebrew-language Walla news site pointed to Mr Netanyahu winning by a landslide against Mr Sa’ar, with 82 per cent of party supporters saying Netanyahu was better suited to lead.
“In the DNA of the Likud, you don’t challenge a seated prime minister,” said Aviv Bushinsky, a former Netanyahu spokesman turned political analyst.
He said Mr Sa’ar winning 30 per cent of the vote would amount to “an accomplishment.” But for Netanyahu “the larger the margin, the greater his public legitimacy” ahead of the elections and his mounting legal challenges.
Israelis were destined for a third election in under a year on March 2, 2020 after neither Netanyahu nor his main rival Benny Gantz, leader of the Blue and White party, secured a majority in the 120-seat Knesset earlier this month after protracted negotiations in the wake of a September election.
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.
Mr Netanyahu has tried to drum up support from his nationalist base on the eve of the primaries, reiterating his call to annex part of the West Bank, which Palestinians seek for a future state, and promising to advance plans for 3,000 new homes in Israeli settlements.
In a radio interview on Wednesday he said he was seeking US recognition of Israeli sovereignty over West Bank settlements, which much of the international community considers illegal.
But at a campaign rally in the southern city of Ashkelon late on Wednesday, Mr Netanyahu was ushered off stage by security guards when Palestinians militants in the Gaza Strip launched a rocket toward Israel.
Though the Iron Dome missile defence battery intercepted it, it was the second time in recent months that Mr Netanyahu has had to abandon the podium at a campaign event because of a missile attack from Gaza.
Mr Netanyahu has projected a hardline stance against Palestinian militants, but under his tenure Israel has struck informal ceasefires with Gaza’s Hamas rulers to curb rocket fire.
“I’ve discovered something that will surely amaze you: Hamas and Islamic Jihad don’t want me to win,” Mr Netanyahu told the crowd upon his return to the stage.