Benjamin Netanyahu faces a serious threat to his grip on power as members of his ruling Likud party begin voting in an internal ballot to decide who will lead them in an unprecedented third Israeli election in quick succession in March.
Despite battling three damning corruption indictments, the 70-year-old incumbent prime minister is widely predicted to win the leadership vote. Netanyahu has dominated the famously loyal rightwing party for most of the past two decades.
If Saar takes a large minority of the vote it would publicly weaken the prime minister when he is already limping. As well as the impending court cases, Netanyahu failed to secure a clear win in two inconclusive elections this year.
Polls opened across the country at 9am (0700 GMT), with roughly 116,000 members eligible to vote. Voting will end at 11pm local time, with results expected overnight.
At a polling station in central Jerusalem, Tommy Levi, a 67-year-old taxi driver who has been a Likud member for 40 years, said he would vote for “Bibi”, the prime minister’s often-used nickname.
“Bibi did things for Likud members that no one else was able to do,” he said, referencing Donald Trump’s decision to open an embassy in Jerusalem, a move decried by Palestinians who also claim parts of the city. Israel, which claims all of Jerusalem, celebrated the move as a diplomatic triumph.
Outside the polling centre, two white tents had been erected in the fierce winter wind. One was for Netanyahu, where volunteers were handing out T-shirts, stickers and even umbrellas to several supporters. Next to it, a much quieter tent had fliers for Saar.
Yaron Rochin, 68, a Saar volunteer with a white handlebar moustache, conceded that most people who passed on Thursday morning appeared to be Netanyahu supporters. “I hope towards midday or in the evening more Saar supporters will come, if not here then in the rest of the country,” he said.
Saar, a former lawyer and journalist who has held several senior government positions, has focused his campaign on the promise of being a more electable leader who can end the political deadlock that has engulfed Israel.
Sombre and staid compared with Netanyahu’s more energising, media-savvy style, Saar has hoped to sway voters nostalgic for a more restrained statesman, even if his position regarding the Palestinians are considered even more hawkish and nationalistic.
While Netanyahu’s rivals outside his party have focused on the bribery and fraud charges, Saar has mostly ignored them on the campaign trial. The move is seen as an attempt not to alienate Likud voters who believe the prime minister’s argument that the indictments are a media-led “witch-hunt” carried out by a broken judiciary.
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