Benjamin Netanyahu faces challenge for party, Israeli leadership

Dec. 26 (UPI) — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will try to fend off a challenge from within his own party Thursday in a Likud Party primary that comes amid enduring political instability and corruption charges against the Israeli leader.

Netanyahu faces some sentiment eager for change, but is expected to easily defend his position as Likud Party leader. His opponent Thursday is Gideon Sa’ar, his former education and interior minister.

Netanyahu’s failure, however, to build a coalition government to lead Israel after two national elections this year — and new indictments on charges of corruption — has made his standing in the party less secure.

More than 116,000 Likud members began voting at 106 polling stations Thursday morning, which will remain open until 11 p.m. Preliminary results are expected after midnight.

Israel will stage another election on March 2, since Netanyahu, Blue and White Party leader Benny Gantz and the Knesset were all unable to form a unity government when given the mandate by Israeli President Reuven Rivlin. Supporters contend that Sa’ar would be able to work with rivals to form a coalition government.

Israeli prosecutors indicted Netanyahu last month on bribery, fraud and breach of trust charges stemming from three corruption cases that critics say will cloud his leadership even if he’s re-elected.

Considering the long odds, Sa’ar’s supporters would view winning about 30 percent of Thursday’s vote as a qualified success. Observers do expect, however, the most serious challenge to date toward Netanyahu’s grip on the Likud Party. Netanyahu has been the party’s leader since 2005 and Israel’s prime minister since 2009.

Sa’ar has so far refrained from criticizing Netanyahu, and has said he’d endorse Netanyahu to take over for Rivlin as president if he wins Thursday and becomes prime minister in March.

“[Sa’ar supporters] already sense there is a changing of the guard,” Ofer Zalzberg, an Israeli political analyst at the International Crisis Groupthink tank, said. “They are hoping that the contest between Sa’ar and Netanyahu will create the conditions for a third side to take home the spoils.”

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