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Israel: Likud voters tip Netanyahu arch rival as replacement party head

Prominent Likud parliamentarian Gideon Sa’ar [Gideon Saar/Facebook]
Prominent Likud parliamentarian Gideon Sa’ar [Gideon Saar/Facebook]

Supporters of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party have tipped his arch rival Gideon Sa'ar as their preferred replacement as party head, should the prime minister fail to win re-election or be indicted on corruption charges.

According to a survey conducted by Israeli research institute Maagar Mohot, 33 per cent of Likud voters see Sa'ar as the best replacement for Netanyahu if he is no longer able to serve as head of the party.

Israel's Foreign Minister, Yisrael Katz, came a close second with 29 per cent, while Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein received 16 per cent. Trailing in fourth place was Minister of Public Security and Strategic Affairs Gilad Erdan, with six per cent support among Likud voters.

A similar outlook was revealed when the same question was asked of the general Israeli public – Sa'ar led with 27 per cent, while Katz and Edelstein each held 19 per cent. Once again, Erdan trailed with two per cent.

READ: Likud activists say Netanyahu's time is at an end

A surprise result of the poll was that ten per cent of Likud voters would like to see former Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked head the party, despite the fact that she is not currently a Likud Knesset Member (MK).

Rumours began to circulate last month that Shaked – formerly of the Jewish Home party – could join Likud after her new party, the New Right (Hayemin Hehadash), failed to pass the 3.25 per cent minimum threshold needed to win seats in the Knesset during Israel's April election.

Shaked's shock decline was compounded by her unceremonious dismissal from the Justice Ministry earlier this month. Having failed to enter the Knesset, Netanyahu was reportedly "outraged" that she and long-time ally Naftali Bennett tried to attend the high-security cabinet meeting, prompting him to give them 48 hours' notice of their removal.

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Thus far no moves have been made to bring Shaked into the Likud party, despite polls showing that her admission could boost the party's seat numbers in the upcoming general election on 17 September – Israel's second this year. Netanyahu's wife Sara has reportedly vetoed the move, despite her having no official sway in such matters.

The result of today's poll will come as a blow to Netanyahu, who has long fought to keep Sa'ar at a distance for fear that he could threaten his status as party leader.

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The poll shows an increase in support for Sa'ar since the Likud party primaries in February, in which Edelstein finished first (to take second place on the electoral slate behind Netanyahu), followed by Katz and then Sa'ar. Erdan came fourth in the primaries, with Culture and Sport Minister Miri Regev finishing in fifth place.

One explanation for this could be Sa'ar's increasingly-vocal opposition to Netanyahu's attempts to guarantee his immunity from prosecution in three corruption cases. Last month, Sa'ar came out publically against Netanyahu's efforts to pass legislation which would allow the Knesset to override Supreme Court verdicts, thereby ensuring he cannot be prosecuted as long as he remains in office.

"This legislation offers zero benefit and causes maximum damage," Sa'ar told Israel's Channel 12 news. "We told the public [during the pre-9 April election campaign] that we weren't going to do this. I think a law like this will hurt Likud and won't help the prime minister," he added, noting that he "isn't the only one [in the Likud party] who's concerned".

Israel has seen widespread demonstrations against Netanyahu's immunity bid, with tens of thousands of people taking to the streets of Tel Aviv to protest the move. The interim opposition has also echoed Sa'ar's condemnation of Netanyahu, with Blue and White (Kahol Lavan) number two Yair Lapid praising him for having the courage to speak out against the prime minister.

READ: Ex-Israel Defence Minister Ya'alon slams Netanyahu: 'Hamas also elected democratically'

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