Likud leadership battle heats up

What happened: The battle for the Likud leadership has intensified as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his main challenger, Gideon Saar, launched their campaigns ahead of the 26 December primary election.

  • Saar has so far secured the support of five out of 32 Likud Knesset members, as well as key mayors and regional council leaders.
  • Internal Security Minister Gilad Erdan and Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein, both senior Likud officials, have yet to declare for either side.
  • Netanyahu has already held rallies with hundreds of party activists, while Saar will hold an official launch event tonight.
  • Loyalists for both sides have taken to television, radio, and social media in an increasingly bitter fight. Saar has argued that the Likud and right wing camp is headed for certain electoral defeat with Netanyahu at the helm for next March’s general election. Netanyahu has argued that he is a global statesman that has led Israel to unprecedented achievements in recent years – and that the Likud is a “family” that has never deposed a leader.

Context: Most polls currently predict that the right wing bloc of parties led by Likud would win slightly more seats under Saar than Netanyahu, improving its overall electoral prospects – although under Netanyahu the Likud itself would do significantly better.

  • One Saar loyalist said today: “Blue and White knows how to beat Netanyahu….they’re afraid and have no answer for Gideon Saar.”
  • A Netanyahu loyalist said yesterday: “I’m sure that most of the Likud voters…want the prime minister by a huge margin. The disparity between the two men is enormous, like between a Mercedes and a Sussita [an Israeli-made car from the 1950s].”
  • Saar has also attempted to outflank Netanyahu from the right, blasting the prime minister for his past record of concessions to the Palestinians and support for a two-state solution. Saar said any solution to the conflict “needs to be in the form of autonomy with a connection to… Jordan and economic alliances among the Palestinian Authority, Israel and Jordan. Between the Jordan River and the [Mediterranean] Sea there won’t be another independent state.”

Looking ahead: The Likud primary is the strongest internal challenge to Netanyahu for more than a decade. Since the 2005 primary vote Netanyahu has never received less than 73 per cent of the vote. In 2002, Netanyahu lost to then-prime minister Ariel Sharon, 56 percent to 40 percent. Netanyahu is still considered the favourite to beat Saar this month, although most analysts are looking at the strength of the Saar challenge to gauge Netanyahu’s overall political standing – with most saying that Saar receiving 40 per cent of the vote would be a major blow to the prime minister.

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