Surging Netanyahu rival launches party leadership challenge

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Upstart Israeli politician Gideon Saar officially launched his bid to unseat Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as head of the ruling Likud party.

Netanyahu is Israel’s longest-serving leader, but he’s been weakened by a corruption indictment that may force him out of office, as well as back-to-back failures to form a government this year.

Saar’s leadership bid marks the first serious internal challenge to Netanyahu in his decade-plus in power. Though Saar is still a decided underdog to the embattled prime minister, he seems to be gaining traction ahead of the Dec. 26 vote among the party faithful.

A former aide and senior Cabinet minister under Netanyahu, Saar has long been considered a rising star in Likud and a potential future heir. But while others are patiently waiting for Netanyahu to step down on his own, Saar has been the only one who has dared to take him head on.

Netanyahu faces charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust in three corruption cases in which he is accused of trading legislative or regulatory favors in exchange for lavish gifts or favorable media coverage. He denies wrongdoing and has waged an angry campaign against the media and law enforcement officials he said are bent on ousting him from office.

Outwardly, Likud members have strongly supported their leader and joined in denouncing the alleged “coup” of the liberal elites against him.

But Saar’s burgeoning insurrection has begun to reveal some cracks.

Around 500 party activists attended the launch of the former education minister’s campaign to unseat Netanyahu, which has been buoyed by support from a half-dozen Likud lawmakers. That includes the powerful chairman of the party’s executive body. Saar, in a jab at Netanyahu’s inability to form a government, took the podium flanked by banners with his slogan: “Only Saar Can!”

While Netanyahu’s various opponents across the political spectrum have called on him to resign because of his legal woes, Saar has kept saying the party needs a new leader because Netanyahu has been unable to form a stable coalition government. He has said the prime minister is unlikely to be able to again, if given another chance.