Members of the Likud Party are voting Thursday in a leadership primary that has pitted embattled Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu against former minister Gideon Sa’ar, in the most serious challenge to the premier’s grip on the party in over a decade.
Netanyahu is widely expected to cruise to victory, but has faced questions over his ability to form a government and lead the country with criminal charges hanging over his head, giving Sa’ar an opening to vie for the leadership of the right-wing hegemon. The winner of the vote will steer Likud into general elections on March 2.
With an upset seemingly a longshot, Sa’ar allies have shifted to suggesting that gaining 30 percent of the vote could still be considered a success. “No one has gotten close to that before, and we are talking about the incumbent prime minister,” a source close to Sa’ar told The Times of Israel this week, tempering expectations.
Over 100 ballot stations opened across the country at 9 a.m. for the party’s 116,048 dues-paying members. With fears that wet and windy weather could dampen turnout, organizers said they would leave polls open until 11 p.m.
Results were expected some hours later.
The vote caps a two-week dash by both Netanyahu and Sa’ar to crisscross the country and rally supporters to their side; Netanyahu ignored Saar’s call for one-on-one debates.
Netanyahu has led Likud since 1993, minus a six-year stint when Ariel Sharon helmed the party, and is Israel’s longest-ever serving prime minister. He has come to command fierce loyalty both among party faithful and political allies. The premier won leadership primaries in 2012 and 2014 by wide margins and ran unopposed in 2016.
But a string of corruption scandals and his inability to form a government after two tries have left him vulnerable to the a serious challenge for the first time.
Last month, Netanyahu was indicted for fraud and breach of trust in three corruption cases, and bribery in one of them, allegations he strongly denies.
Netanyahu has sought to paint himself as an irreplaceable leader fighting a “witch hunt” by the police, the legal establishment and the media, and has claimed that only he has the diplomatic chops to steer Israel through turbulent international waters, boasting of friendships with US President Donald Trump and others.
Sa’ar, however, has argued that the caretaker prime minister’s inability to form a government after two tries means someone else should be given a chance. He has also tried to hammer him from the right, pointing out unbuilt settlement projects and calling for a tougher stance against Gaza.
On Wednesday, after a rocket attack near Ashkelon forced Netanyahu off the stage in a repeat of an incident from September, Sa’ar tweeted a call for a “broad national consensus for dismantling the military infrastructure” of Palestinian terror groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
The centrist Blue and White Party and others to the left of Likud have vowed not to form a government with Netanyahu as leader due to the graft charges, though they have indicated they could enter a coalition with another Likud leader.
A series of polls in recent weeks have indicated a Saar-led Likud might win fewer seats in a third election than under Netanyahu, but the overall right-wing bloc might be larger — potentially enabling it to break the impasse and form a majority government.
Saar, 53, has been a senior figure in Likud for a decade and held multiple ministries, but stepped away from politics for some three years in 2014 after being politically sidelined by Netanyahu.
In a sign of the sway Netanyahu holds over the party, Sa’ar has avoided attacking the prime minister personally, even hinting he would support him becoming president.
A defeat for Netanyahu would be a shock, but even a relatively close result could weaken his influence over the conservative party.
Whatever the result, “Netanyahu can only lose,” said Stephan Miller, a pollster who has worked on multiple Israeli campaigns.
No matter how much support Sa’ar receives, “it will be the first time in 10 years that a group of voters on the right explicitly express their desire to get rid of Netanyahu,” he said.
“If that is more than a third of the party, Netanyahu will be significantly damaged,” he added.
Over the course of the campaign, Sa’ar and his allies, which include a smattering of Likud Knesset members, have said they’ve been attacked relentlessly by Netanyahu’s camp.
On Wednesday, Sa’ar issued a call for civility after Culture Minister Miri Regev told Netanyahu supporters that “we will not let the Bukharans win here,” in reference to his Uzbek Jewish heritage. Regev claimed the jibe was made in jest.
Most senior Likud politicians have lined up behind Netanyahu, but Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein has so far chosen not to support either candidate, despite pressure. On Tuesday, minister Gilad Erdan broke two weeks of silence to back Netanyahu.
Ofer Zalzberg, an Israeli political analyst at the International Crisis Group think tank, said it would have been unthinkable a few years ago for senior party officials not to publicly back Netanyahu.
“They already sense there is a changing of the guard. They are hoping that the contest between Sa’ar and Netanyahu will create the conditions for a third side to take home the spoils,” he said.
Analysts and pundits have predicted Netanyahu’s downfall multiple times since he became prime minister for a second time in 2009, but he has defied expectations and outlasted multiple rivals.
Backed into a corner on multiple fronts, Netanyahu appears determined to fight his way out.
Politics professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem Gideon Rahat predicted the premier would not step down, even in the event of a narrow victory over Saar.
Netanyahu “will continue, even if he gets 50 percent and one extra vote,” he said.
Under Israeli law, a prime minister is entitled to remain in office even under indictment.
However, next week the Supreme Court will rule on whether President Reuven Rivlin could legally task Netanyahu after the March 2 election with forming a new government, given the charges against him.
Miller said the very fact there was a primary was indicative of signs of discontent in the right wing, over which Netanyahu has ruled largely unchallenged for a decade.
“In every survey of voters I do, 58-60 percent of Jewish Israelis self-identify as center-right or right — a built-in right-wing majority,” he said. “The way that the Netanyahu era ends is by a challenge from the right — not the left.”