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Netanyahu Rival Launches Challenge To Lead Likud Party

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Some other news now. Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faces another election next year, but first, he must face his party's primary next week. For the first time in years, someone is challenging him for leadership of the Likud. NPR's Daniel Estrin reports.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Gideon Saar.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Gideon Saar is called up to the stage at a hotel in central Israel. Last night, he launched his campaign for leadership of the right-wing Likud Party. He's a longtime member, and some consider him more right wing than Benjamin Netanyahu, and he's been waiting in the wings for years for this moment. Gideon Saar began his stump speech praising the man he wants to replace.

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GIDEON SAAR: Benjamin Netanyahu.

ESTRIN: Benjamin Netanyahu, he says, is one of the most important leaders Israel and the Likud Party have ever had. But...

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SAAR: (Non-English language spoken).

ESTRIN: "The writing is on the wall that Netanyahu won't win another election," he says. Netanyahu faces corruption charges for allegedly giving favors to media moguls and businessmen in exchange for gifts and glowing press coverage. The scandal has paralyzed the country. It's led to two inconclusive elections, and in March, there will be a third. Polls predict Saar could get more votes for Likud than Netanyahu, and some longtime Netanyahu supporters have abandoned the prime minister, like Likud lawmaker Sharren Haskel.

SHARREN HASKEL: Israel's in sort of a turmoil at the moment. We've had two elections and unfortunately weren't able to form a government. We're worried about the forming of the government, so I believe that Gideon Saar is the one that will be capable of actually building it.

ESTRIN: Saar supporters say party officials close to Netanyahu are tampering with the primary and purging thousands of Likud members on allegations that they're left-wing infiltrators expected to vote for Saar. Outside the hotel where Saar supporters gathered, Netanyahu supporters chanted they're traitors.

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UNIDENTIFIED NETANYAHU SUPPORTERS: (Chanting in non-English language).

ESTRIN: Netanyahu is expected to win his party's primaries. Most senior party leaders still back him, but mostly because they're also vying to lead the party one day, says Tal Schneider, who covers politics for the Israeli newspaper Globes.

TAL SCHNEIDER: They're thinking about the next round. There is a belief among the Likud top officials that if you are close to the leader, then you will be the one who will be the next leader.

ESTRIN: Israel heads for a third election. And there's a Hebrew expression - third time, ice cream. So Ben and Jerry's local Israeli factory is calling for suggestions for a new ice-cream flavor to mark the occasion. Some have suggested nuts in this nutty political season.

Daniel Estrin, NPR News, Or Yehuda in central Israel.

(SOUNDBITE OF HIDDEN ORCHESTRA'S "STAMMER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.