Israel: Likud members elect leader at party primary

Called by the main rival to the Israeli Prime Minister, Gideon Saar, this election could well turn into a popularity test for Benjamin Netanyahu.

The members of Likud of Benjamin Netanyahu vote this Thursday to appoint their leader during a primary claimed by the main rival of the Israeli Prime Minister, Gideon Saar, determined to rob him of the party. The winner of the primary will have the heavy task of leading the right-wing training campaign for the legislative elections in March, the third in less than a year.

The polling stations opened at 9 a.m., and the 116,000 members of Likud are called to vote until 11 p.m. At 9 p.m. on Thursday, the turnout was 42%, according to the party. The results should be released in the morning.

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On Twitter, 70-year-old Benjamin Netanyahu earlier called on his supporters to vote en masse. "The participation rate is very low, the victory of the right depends on you," he said, while participation was only 30%. He also posted a video on Facebook showing him phoning party members to convince them to vote for him.

"Fateful day"

Arriving at the office where he voted near Tel Aviv, Gideon Saar said it was "a fateful day" for Likud and for Israel. "We can win today and take a new path that will allow us to form a strong and stable government," he said.

The primary, which looks like a referendum on the popularity of Benjamin Netanyahu in its own ranks, is unlikely to be won by MP Gideon Saar. But if it comes to a close result, it will be a blow to the Prime Minister, head of Likud since 1993 – apart from six years when the party was led by Ariel Sharon – and most long-standing head of government in history Israel.

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This consultation also comes a little more than a month after the accusation of Benjamin Netanyahu for corruption, fraud and breach of trust. "False accusations" according to him. Following this indictment, rivals within Likoud, at the head of which Gideon Saar, had called for the holding of this primary.

"We need a change"

"The judicial institution was right about Bibi (…) A change must be made for the Likud to remain in power," said Yaron, 68, a Jerusalem resident who voted for Gideon Saar. Nathan Moati, 26, assures him that the supporters of Benjamin Netanyahu are not disturbed by his legal proceedings, and that only "Bibi" can win the legislative elections.

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This is why "all Likud supporters must vote for Netanyahu today," said the young man. After the early elections in April, then in September, neither Benjamin Netanyahu nor the centrist Benny Gantz – whose parties arrived neck and neck twice – failed to rally 61 deputies, threshold of parliamentary majority to form a government.

President Reuven Rivlin then entrusted this task to Parliament itself, which did not succeed. Hence the need for a new electoral meeting. Pollster Stephan Miller said, "No matter what percentage Saar gets, it will be the first time in ten years that right-wing voters have explicitly expressed their desire to get rid of Netanyahu." According to Stephan Miller, if Gideon Saar, 53, receives more than a third of the votes, "it will be a significant blow to Netanyahu".

Sling

Gideon Saar was a minister several times, before putting his political career on hold in 2014 after being dismissed by Benjamin Netanyahu. If Gideon Saar is even more marked on the right than the Prime Minister, especially on the Palestinian question, he plays the card of the unifier beyond his own camp, by betting on his relations with the leaders of other parties.

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He could also benefit from the fact that Benny Gantz's "Blue-White" party refused to share power with an accused Prime Minister. In the meantime, according to recent polls, a Likud led by Gideon Saar would win fewer legislative seats than if he were led by Benjamin Netanyahu.

However, if Gideon Saar wins in the primary, Likud voters could turn to other right-wing parties, those who had not reached the 3.5% threshold to enter Parliament in the past polls. In this case, the right camp could potentially reach the threshold of the parliamentary majority necessary to form a government. For Benjamin Netanyahu, it is essential to remain in power: the law provides that any minister prosecuted by crime must resign, but this does not apply to the Prime Minister.

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