By Linda Gradstein
Members of Israel’s ruling Likud party went to the polls Thursday to choose a new party leader. Despite three corruption indictments against him, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is expected to defeat challenger Gideon Saar.
Fifty-three-year-old Gideon Saar is a popular Likud Party member of parliament and former Cabinet minister. He is seen as more hardline than Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu but more restrained. Saar is married to one of Israel’s best known TV news anchors.
Recently, Saar said he is challenging Netanyahu, predicting a better chance of forming a majority government.
“I think I will be able to form a government and I think I will be able to unite the country and the nation,” he said.
Turnout was low, partly because of a winter storm sweeping through Israel. Most analysts expect Netanyahu, who is still popular in the party, to prevail. But analyst Ofer Kenig of the Israel Democracy Institute told Israel Radio that Saar is a serious challenger.
“Part of Likud members and definitely a lot of Likud voters have had enough with Netanyahu and putting himself forward as an heir apparent can give Saar a lot of points among the Likudniks that oppose Netanyahu,” said Kenig.
Just hours before the polls opened in the Likud party primary election, Palestinians in Gaza fired a rocket at the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon as Netanyahu was giving a campaign speech, and the Likud jingle was blaring in the background.
The words “Tzeva Adom” mean “red alert” and mean a rocket was fired. The rocket was shot down by Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system and Netanyahu — Israel’s longest-serving prime minister — returned to finish his speech.
Last month, Israel’s attorney general indicted the prime minister on charges of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust. Israel is also heading to a third election in a year, after neither Netanyahu nor his former chief of staff, Benny Gantz, was able to cobble together a majority government.
Even if Netanyahu prevails as expected, it’s not clear if he will win the 2020 general election.