Embattled Netanyahu Faces Rare Challenge to Lead Likud

(Bloomberg) -- Benjamin Netanyahu has lost his air of invincibility after two inconclusive elections, and on Thursday he’ll see whether party loyalists are losing faith, too.

The Israeli prime minister’s failure this year to form a government after back-to-back votes has thrust him into the unfamiliar territory of defending his leadership of the nationalist Likud party. His challenger in Thursday’s contest, popular former cabinet minister Gideon Saar, says Netanyahu is as hemmed in as a checkmated chess king and it’s time for a new leader.

Embattled Netanyahu Faces Rare Challenge to Lead Likud

While party leaders and analysts predict Netanyahu will win, it’s been a year of unwelcome surprises for the 70-year-old Israeli leader, whose weakened standing after a year of political and legal turmoil invited the challenge from Saar. Saar, 57, wants the party to switch candidates mid-race as Israel heads to its third vote in less than a year on March 2.

Likud’s showing weakened in the second vote, and “anyone with eyes in his head knows that there is no chance that Netanyahu will be able to put together a coalition after the March 2 elections,” Saar told Likud members on Dec. 18. A campaign clip on his Twitter page compares Netanyahu to a king on a chessboard with nowhere to move.

“Netanyahu is blocked, blocked, blocked,” the narrator intones.

Parliament disbanded in December for the third time in 11 months after neither Netanyahu nor former military chief Benny Gantz, the leader of the Blue and White bloc, managed to build a governing coalition. The prime minister’s political woes have been closely linked to corruption suspicions that ripened into an indictment against him in November.

Saar has won the endorsement of several mayors, party activists and other Likud lawmakers, but that might not be enough for the party to turn its back on the man who has led Likud for 20 years.

No State

The former interior and education minister shares Netanyahu’s hawkish approach. He opposes Palestinian statehood, saying no one can guarantee a Palestinian state wouldn’t become a haven for Islamist militants that would threaten Israel’s main metropolitan areas. Instead, he advocates giving the Palestinians less than full sovereignty.

Saar worked in the state prosecutor’s office before Netanyahu named him cabinet secretary in 1999. He became one of the most popular figures in Likud and frequently was mentioned as an heir apparent to Netanyahu. But after years of friction with the prime minister, he abruptly quit politics in 2014, then returned three years later after police investigations raised doubts about Netanyahu’s grip on power. His entry to the Likud leadership race was the first serious challenge Netanyahu has faced in the party in 14 years.

Polls close at 11 p.m. and results are expected on Friday. On Wednesday night, Netanyahu was whisked offstage at a campaign event in the southern city of Ashkelon after sirens sounded signaling an incoming rocket from the Gaza Strip. The rocket was intercepted by a missile defense system.

Likud, which first rose to power in the late 1970s as a center-right alternative to Israel’s founding Labor party, prides itself on loyalty to its leaders. There have only been four party heads in its political history, and none of them was pushed out.

“Saar is putting up a real fight,” said Mitchell Barak, a pollster and former aide to Netanyahu. But the “Likud is not going to dump a sitting prime minister who is about to go to an election.”

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