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Embattled Israeli PM Netanyahu faces leadership challenger from within party

JERUSALEM — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday faced the first serious internal challenge to his decade-long rule as his party held a primary vote following his failure to form a government and his indictment on corruption charges.

Veteran Likud party member Gideon Saar hoped to unseat Netanyahu, telling voters he would be better placed to form a government after national elections in March.

Despite the indictment, Netanyahu remains popular among Likud members, and the fiercely loyal party — which has only had four leaders since its inception in the 1970s — stood firmly behind the long-serving leader. He was expected to defeat Saar, and a win could strengthen his hand going into the next national vote.

“For years, I have been working for you for the sake of our beloved country. Now I am asking for your support,” Netanyahu wrote on Facebook. ”A big victory for me in the primaries will ensure a huge victory in the Knesset elections.”

Saar, who has garnered support from a handful of Likud backbenchers, had surged in the lead-up to the vote, and he could benefit from stormy weather that appeared to be keeping turnout low. If he wins, he would become Likud’s candidate for prime minister in March.

“We can win today, to set forth on a new path that will allow us to form a strong and stable government, that will allow us to unite the people of Israel, which is probably the most important thing right now,” Saar told reporters.

Netanyahu has portrayed Saar as inexperienced, while depicting himself as a master of international diplomacy and a scourge to Israel’s enemies.

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