Netanyahu’s Survival Is Tested as Likud Party Holds Leadership Vote

Netanyahu’s Survival Is Tested as Likud Party Holds Leadership Vote


JERUSALEM — With Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s political future on the line — and possibly Israel’s — members of his conservative Likud party voted Thursday on whether to stick with their scandal-scarred leader or replace him ahead of a general election in March.

Mr. Netanyahu, who was indicted last month on corruption charges including bribery, was widely expected to prevail over his challenger, Gideon Saar, a seasoned but less popular party veteran. Even so, this is the most serious challenge to the prime minister’s party leadership since 2005, and fears of a low turnout on a day of bad weather made the outcome harder to predict.

The result of the vote, expected to be known early Friday, will determine whether Mr. Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, will lead Likud into the country’s third parliamentary election in less than a year. The previous two general elections, in April and September, ended inconclusively and left the deeply divided nation in a political deadlock.

A clear win for Mr. Netanyahu would reaffirm his political survival skills and could energize his campaign for the March election, while a defeat would alter the landscape of Israeli politics and shake up that campaign.

On Thursday, both candidates urged their supporters to brave the windy, rainy weather and turn out, each insisting that a big victory for him would lead to a big victory for the party on March 2.

“For years I’ve been working as your emissary for our beloved country,” Mr. Netanyahu, 70, wrote in an appeal to the voters on Thursday morning. “Now I am asking for your support.” Soon after, in a Facebook Live post, he showed himself working the phones.

Mr. Saar, 53, said he felt an awakening among the grass-roots. Voting in Tel Aviv, where he lives, he said, “We can win today and set off on a new path that will allow us to form a strong and stable government, that will allow us to unify the people of Israel — and that is the most important thing right now.”

About 116,000 paying Likud members are eligible to vote — a small fraction of those who vote for the party in general elections — and only about half have turned out for party primaries in the past.

There were also fears of a low turnout because the vote is taking place during Hanukkah, when children are out of school. It was not clear which candidate would be helped by sparse turnout, but some people joked about whether Mr. Saar’s surname — Hebrew for “storm” — was an omen.

By midday, just over 8 percent of those eligible had voted. The ballot boxes were to remain open from 9 a.m. until 11 p.m.

At a campaign rally in the southern coastal city of Ashkelon on Wednesday night, Mr. Netanyahu had to be hustled off the stage to a safe area when an alert sounded, warning of a rocket launch from nearby Gaza. The military said a single rocket had been intercepted, and Mr. Netanyahu returned to the stage.

A similar incident during the September election campaign was a leading factor in Israel’s assassination in November of Baha Abu al-Ata, an Islamic Jihad commander in Gaza, setting off a fierce, two-day cross-border clash.

Wednesday’s rocket attack provided an occasion for Mr. Netanyahu’s rivals in other parties to sting him. His chief opponent in the general election, Benny Gantz, a former army chief and leader of the centrist Blue and White party, described it as a “badge of shame” for the prime minister’s security policy in southern Israel.

Mr. Saar has avoided attacking Mr. Netanyahu personally, avoiding mention of the indictment against him and leading what he hoped would be seen as a dignified campaign in a party that has traditionally prided itself on loyalty to its leader.

But as a hawkish technocrat, Mr. Saar has tried to outflank Mr. Netanyahu from the right, pledging to carry out annexation of territory in the occupied West Bank and other actions to bolster Israel’s settlement enterprise and land claims there — things that Mr. Netanyahu has also long promised but has avoided doing under international pressure.

The charismatic, if polarizing, Mr. Netanyahu still commands a strong and emotional following and has brought Likud to power four times in the past.

Mr. Saar’s main calling card is his clean image and the predictions, backed up by opinion polls, that with Mr. Netanyahu at the helm, the March election may do nothing to resolve Israel’s political logjam.

“The Likudniks are going out to choose today between the past and the future,” Ben Caspit, a political columnist, wrote in the Maariv newspaper on Thursday, describing the voters’ choice as one “between the head and gut; between cold logic and the warm heart.”



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