Israel’s Netanyahu declares victory after facing party leadership challenge

The Israeli prime minister was bundled off stage in a campaign rally for his party’s primaries amid rocket fire from Gaza 

Bel Trew
Jerusalem
Thursday 26 December 2019 13:28
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Netanyahu rushed off stage as Israel intercepts rocket

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared victory in a vote challenging his leadership, after TV stations predicted a landslide win for the Israeli leader.

Mr Netanyahu, who has headed the right-wing Likud party for 14 years, appeared to have crushed an internal rebellion led by veteran politician Gideon Saar during his party’s primary elections. The apparent victory means that Mr Netanyahu will lead Likud into March elections.

Official results released by Likud showed Mr Netanyahu capturing 41,792 votes, or 72 per cent, compared with 15,885 votes, or 28 per cent, for Mr Saar.

“A giant victory,” Mr Netanyahu tweeted, just over an hour after polls closed.

“Thanks to the members of Likud for the trust, support and love,” he said. “God willing, I will lead Likud to a big victory in the coming elections.”

In a tweet, Mr Saar congratulated him and said he would support the prime minister in the national election.

"I am absolutely comfortable with my decision to run," he added. "Whoever isn't ready to take a risk for the path he believes in will never win."

While the results galvanise Mr Netanyahu's position ahead of the March vote, the results of the primary will likely prolong Israel's political deadlock.

The prime minister’s leadership had been shaken by corruption charges against him and an inability to form a government.

Mr Netanyahu twice failed to build a ruling coalition after elections in April and September, leading to the unprecedented third vote this spring.

His chief rival Benny Gantz, who heads up the centrist Blue and White party, had refused to join forces with the Likud if Mr Netanyahu remained as prime minister while he was standing trial for corruption.

Mr Netanyahu has also faced a backlash over continued escalations and heavy exchanges of fire between militants in Gaza and Israel’s security forces over the last year.

As the prime minister campaigned in the southern city of Ashkelon on Wednesday, he was forced to flee the stage when a rocket fired from Gaza set off sirens.

It was the second time he has been bundled off stage due to incoming fire – he was rushed to a rocket shelter in the nearby city of Ashdod in September.

But despite the difficulties and the shadow of corruption indictment, the premier remains a popular figure within the right-wing party.​

His rival Mr Saar, a former education and interior minister, has garnered support from a handful of Likud backbenchers who have said it is time for fresh leadership.

As people headed to the polls, Mr Saar told reporters that Israel needed “a new path... to form a strong and stable government, that will allow us to unite the people of Israel.”

Mr Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, has dismissed Mr Saar’s challenges portraying him as inexperienced while talking up his own security credentials and diplomatic prowess.

But he has faced a tough challenge after he was indicted on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust in three corruption cases, in which he is accused of trading legislative or regulatory favours in exchange for lavish gifts or favourable media coverage.

He denies wrongdoing and has called the legal proceedings against him a political witch hunt. His supporters have tried to paint Mr Saar as part of the same conspiracy.

Gideon Saar, Likud Party member, speaks at a campaign rally in Or Yehuda ahead of party primaries (Getty)

Both Netanyahu and Gantz said they wanted to create a unity government, but fought over Mr Netanyahu’s position as prime minister.

Gantz and his co-leaders in Blue and White argued that he would not be able to run the country if he was distracted by the legal proceedings.

Although Mr Saar was widely expected to lose the primaries, as Likud’s leader, he would likely have a better chance of creating a national unity government with Gantz’s Blue and White party after the March elections.

Recent polls also show that with Saar as leader, Likud would make a more powerful bloc with its natural ultra-Orthodox and nationalist allies.

Some 116,048 Likud members are eligible to vote in the party primary.

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