Netanyahu hails huge win in leadership challenge

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-50920575

Composite picture showing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Gideon SaarImage copyright
AFP/EPA

Image caption

Mr Netanyahu faced a challenge from Gideon Saar (right), a former government minister

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has claimed a “huge win” in a vote that challenged his leadership of the Likud party.

About 49% of Likud’s 116,000 eligible members voted on Thursday, party figures show.

The internal party vote was seen as a test of the leader’s hold on power at a time of mounting difficulties.

Mr Netanyahu faces trial on bribery and corruption charges, as well as a third national election within a year.

Previous elections held in April and September saw Likud deadlocked with the centrist Blue and White party – with neither able to form a government.

After polls closed at 23:00 local time (21:00 GMT) Thursday, Mr Netanyahu tweeted a claim he had won – though a final result is not expected until early on Friday.

“With God and with your help, I will lead the Likud to a big victory in the upcoming elections and continue to lead the State of Israel to unprecedented achievements,” he posted (in Hebrew).

Earlier in the day, with reports of low turnout amid bad weather, Mr Netanyahu appeared on a Facebook Live broadcast appealing for members to get out and vote.

He was predicted to win comfortably but campaigned tirelessly because he wanted the result to show his grip on the party remained strong, the BBC’s Barbara Plett Usher in Jerusalem said.

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Media captionMiddle East correspondent Tom Bateman explains the allegations against Benjamin Netanyahu

Mr Netanyahu, who is the country’s longest serving leader, is facing mounting scrutiny after being indicted in three corruption cases last month.

The 70-year-old denies wrongdoing and claims the charges are a politically motivated “witch-hunt” against him.

Gideon Saar, who was challenging Mr Netanyahu as leader, claimed victory for him would put Likud on a new path.

The 53-year-old is a well-known figure in the party, having previously served as a minister in Mr Netanyahu’s cabinets.

One exit poll, cited by local media, suggested Mr Netanyahu had won over 70% of the vote.

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Media captionBenjamin Netanyahu is escorted off stage after a rocket was launched