Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and challenger Gideon Sa’ar both sought to rally supporters to the polls despite stormy weather Thursday as they battled each other for leadership of Likud, in the greatest challenge to the premier’s hold on the party in over a decade.
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.
Both candidates called on their voters to come to the polling stations despite the rainy and windy conditions, each in his own style.
“This is a fateful day for the right-wing camp and the State of Israel,” said Sa’ar, who came with his wife, journalist Geula Even-Sa’ar, to vote in Tel Aviv. “I call on all Likud members — despite the difficult weather outside — go out to vote. I ask for your trust. We can together make this change happen and embark on a new path that will enable us to form a strong and stable government and unite the nation, and that is what is most important right now.”
Netanyahu, in his own statement, continued his attempts to cast Sa’ar as a tool of the left and the media and alluded to Sa’ar being part of a conspiracy by the former to oust him.
“Immense forces — and not just the weather — are trying to influence you to stay home,” he said. “For years I have acted on your behalf for the benefit of our beloved country. Now I am asking for your support. Go out to vote for me and give an unequivocal answer to the left and the media: they will not decide for us. Only we will determine who leads Likud and the country.”
Netanyahu voted at a booth specially set up at his official residence in Jerusalem.
As of 3 p.m. turnout stood at 18.5 percent of registered voters.
Netanyahu is widely expected to win comfortably, despite facing questions over his ability to form a government and lead the country with criminal charges hanging over his head, and his failure to form a coalition following two elections this year causing an unprecedented third vote to be called for March 2 of next year.
The vote began with some confusion as to the start time for voting, with some Likud voters arriving at polling booths at 8 a.m. only to find out that they were only opening at 9 a.m., despite what they said they had been led to believe. Meanwhile, Sa’ar’s camp complained that some locations were open for voting before the announced time.
The confusion was also apparent in the media, with outlets reporting both 8 a.m. and 9 a.m. as the opening time for polling stations.
Some of the voters who arrived at closed stations at 8 a.m. opted to wait, but others left. “I won’t wait an hour. I need to work. Maybe I’ll manage to vote in the evening, but this miscommunication was pretty disappointing,” a man identified only as Meir told the Ynet news site.
Some voters complained of being sent away from the polling stations they arrived at after being told they were registered elsewhere, sometimes in cities where they had never lived. Last week, Netanyahu allies successfully petitioned the Likud court to allow party members to only cast a vote in the city they are registered and not elsewhere, as has been the case in previous elections for party chair.
“I won’t be able to vote now. There is no way I can get to the polling station. Certainly not in this weather,” said Sarah Harimi, a Likud member who had come to the central Tel Aviv polling station but was told that she was registered in Rishon Lezion.
“I’ve barely ever even been there, let alone lived there,” she complained.
The party said that it was dealing with “a very few number” of technical difficulties regarding voter registration but was “providing solutions to all those facing challenges.”
Justice Minister Amir Ohana, a Netanyahu appointee who supports the current premier, voted in Tel Aviv and said: “I would like to wish Gideon Sa’ar that he loses.”
Speaking to The Times of Israel at the central Tel Aviv polling station, Science and Technology Minister Ofir Akunis, who has endorsed Netanyahu, said that the race did not represent a rift in the party but is rather “a legitimate democratic candidacy from Sa’ar against the incumbent leader.”
Akunis said that “there will be no problem in the party after today because we are one party with a united goal.”
He said he believed that the primary was “very good for Likud. We saw over the past two weeks how enthused the people in the field were for Netanyahu. He lit up parlor meetings. I expect that energy to continue for the national election in March.”
Most senior Likud politicians have lined up behind Netanyahu, but Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein has chosen not to publicly support either candidate, despite pressure. On Tuesday, minister Gilad Erdan broke two weeks of silence to back Netanyahu.
Lawmakers supporting Sa’ar, as well as his campaign headquarters, claimed there were “significant irregularities” in many cities, including some polling stations barring Sa’ar’s inspectors from entering. It followed previous accusations that Netanyahu was using party institutions to tilt the roster of eligible voters in his own favor.
“This is a struggle,” said MK Michal Shir, who backs Sa’ar. “It isn’t a surprise. We saw recently that the voter registry also has problems. We are fighting this with all the means we have to ensure a clean vote.”
“We are imbued with the spirit of victory,” MK Yoav Kisch, Sa’ar’s campaign manager, told Army Radio. “This candidacy is good for the party and I believe can also bring the change and the hope for a revolution in Likud.”
Former Likud MK Carmel Shama Hacohen, now the mayor of Ramat Gan, expressed support for Sa’ar in a Kan public radio interview: “Poll after poll shows that the right-wing bloc under Netanyahu is significantly shrinking.” He claimed that the rival centrist Blue and White party leaders “are praying Netanyahu stays. Today he is their asset, the flag that keeps them united.”
Blue and White No. 2 Yair Lapid sought to mock Likud as being controlled by ultra-Orthodox parties, tweeting that he “congratulates [United Torah Judaism leader] Yaakov Litzman ahead of time for his win in the Likud primary.”
But Likud, as well as many observers, berated Lapid for refusing to hold primaries at all within his Yesh Atid faction, one of several that make up Blue and White. Lapid recently passed a resolution crowning himself leader of Yesh Atid until the end of the 25th Knesset — potentially until 2031.
Netanyahu has portrayed Sa’ar as inexperienced, while depicting himself as a security buff and master of international diplomacy.
Still, 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 election of the year.
With an upset seemingly a longshot, Sa’ar allies have shifted to suggesting that gaining 30% 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.
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 Sa’ar’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 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.
Blue and White 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 Sa’ar-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.
Times of Israel staff and agencies contributed to this report.