Israeli PM's leading rival breaks from ruling party to challenge premiership

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A leading rival of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the right-wing Likud party announced his resignation from parliament Wednesday as he launches a new party to challenge the premier.

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Gideon Saar, an influential figure in conservative Israeli politics, had challenged Netanyahu in a Likud leadership race in December but decisively lost the primary.

With a Netanyahu-led coalition edging towards collapse, risking a fourth Israeli election in less than two years, Saar announced his break with Likud.

“I will create a new movement with the goal of replacing Netanyahu,” Saar said in a virtual press conference late Tuesday.

In a statement Wednesday, Saar announced his formal resignation from Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, freeing him to embark on his “candidacy for prime minister”.

It is not yet clear if Israelis will again head to the polls in 2021.

Netanyahu’s key coalition partner, defense Minister Benny Gantz, in a preliminary vote last week backed an opposition proposal to dissolve the Knesset.

Gantz charges that Netanyahu has acted only in his own political self-interest and placed his upcoming corruption trial above the needs of ordinary Israelis.

Under the coalition agreement, Gantz -- who is also the alternate prime minister -- is to take over as premier in November 2021.

Gantz has said that the only way for Netanyahu to avoid another election is to agree on a 2021 budget. Netanyahu’s critics say the veteran leader is refusing to agree a 2021 budget to ensure the government collapses before he has to hand power to Gantz.

Saar, who is seen as close to ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties, is a former Netanyahu loyalist who served in his previous governments.

On several key issues, he stands to the right of Netanyahu, who has been in power since 2009.

Saar backs Israeli annexation of Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, a move Netanyahu agreed to freeze in exchange for diplomatic normalization deals with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.

Leading political columnist Ben Caspit, writing in the Ma’ariv newspaper, said there was “fully justified” panic within Netanyahu’s ranks over Saar’s defection.

Saar will be well positioned to peel votes away from Likud in an upcoming election, Caspit argued.

“Saar is offering the right-wingers who are fed up with Netanyahu an alternative for whom they’ll have an easier time voting,” he wrote.

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