JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared to have faced down a fresh challenge to his power on Thursday when his Likud party held a leadership vote in the run-up to a March national election, the country’s third in under a year.
An exit poll cited by the political correspondent for Israel’s Channel 12 news predicted that Netanyahu, head of Likud for the past 14 years, would retain the right-wing party’s leadership with 71.52% of votes.
The challenge by Gideon Saar, whom the exit poll gave 28.48% of votes, has added to pressures that have mounted this year on the four-term premier, who is under indictment and fighting for political survival.
An official tally of votes was due on Friday morning.
In November, Netanyahu was charged with corruption in three criminal cases and he has twice failed to form a government in the wake of two inconclusive national ballots, held in April and September.
Netanyahu’s centrist rival in those elections, Benny Gantz of the Blue and White party, was also unable to form a coalition government, which has led Israel to political deadlock and an unprecedented third election.
Netanyahu has cast the legal case against him as a political witch-hunt orchestrated by the media and an Israeli left hoping to oust him.
Though the troubles of “King Bibi” as he is nicknamed by his fans, do not seem to have dented the loyalty Netanyahu commands among his supporters, some Likud members have said it is time for fresh leadership.
Saar, a former education and interior minister and a popular member of Likud, has said that the party is unlikely to regain power in the March 2 election unless Netanyahu steps aside.
Netanyahu has dismissed Saar’s challenge, talking up his security credentials and international prowess.
Around 49% of the 116,048 eligible Likud members turned out for Thursday’s vote, the party said. Stormy weather kept others home.
(Reporting by Rami Ayyub; Editing by Maayan Lubell and Howard Goller)