OR YEHUDA, Israel — With Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel politically weakened and steeped in legal troubles, a rival from within his conservative Likud party has emerged to challenge his grip on the party leadership.
After two inconclusive elections ended with Mr. Netanyahu unable to form a government, Gideon Saar, a seasoned if staid party veteran, is running against him in a primary leadership contest on Thursday.
Mr. Saar argues that only a leadership change can save the party, and the country, from doom in the unprecedented third election set for March.
“We see that we are going down in poll after poll,” Mr. Saar told supporters at his primary campaign launch last week in a wedding hall in Or Yehuda, a Tel Aviv suburb and Likud stronghold. “If we do not bring about a change, we are very close to getting a left-wing government, a government that will endanger everything we hold dear.”
Elections in April and September ended in virtual ties with neither Mr. Netanyahu nor his chief rival, Benny Gantz, leader of the centrist Blue and White party, able to form a majority coalition. But polls show support for Mr. Netanyahu softening after he was indicted last month on bribery and other corruption charges, accused of trading official favors worth hundreds of millions of dollars to Israeli media moguls for lavish gifts and positive news coverage.
Mr. Gantz has not ruled out joining a coalition government with Likud but has said he would not serve in a government with a prime minister under indictment.
Mr. Saar, 53, is widely considered one of the next generation of Likud leaders, in line to take over after the departure of Mr. Netanyahu, 70, Israel’s longest serving prime minister. Mr. Saar has served as education and interior minister and tacks slightly to the right of Mr. Netanyahu, assailing him for not taking bolder action to assert Israeli claims on the occupied West Bank.
But his chances of replacing Mr. Netanyahu now are considered low. He inspires little of the emotion and adoration many of the party faithful reserve for the charismatic, media-savvy Mr. Netanyahu, the maestro of political theater who brought Likud to power four times and has led the party for the past 14 years, and a total of 20 years in all. Despite the three criminal cases against him, Mr. Netanyahu still commands solid support within the party.
Likud has had only four leaders since its foundation and rise to power in the 1970s. Likudniks have long prided themselves on their fierce loyalty to their leader, and have never unseated an incumbent before. Many buy into Mr. Netanyahu’s argument that he is the victim of a witch hunt by a left-wing elite that dominates the news media and has pressured the law enforcement authorities to pursue criminal investigations against him.
Still, cracks are appearing in Likud’s united front. While several other would-be Netanyahu successors are waiting for him to exit the stage before making their move, the Saar camp has the endorsement of a handful of lawmakers and a growing following of local party leaders, committee heads and mayors.
They joined hundreds of the party’s rank and file at the campaign launch, sitting under gaudy chandeliers at tables laden with sticky Hanukkah doughnuts. Classic Likud election jingles blared from the sound system and a group of activists tried to whip up the enthusiasm with chants of “Gideon, king of Israel” — a spin on a cheer frequently employed by supporters of Mr. Netanyahu, universally known as Bibi, who sing “Bibi, king of Israel,” to the tune of a popular folk song about King David.
“Bibi did a great job so far but it won’t work this time,” said Reuven Peleg, 67, a businessman. “People want an authentic leader with roots in Likud and a clear ideology. Saar is the cleanest man I know.”
Mr. Saar’s half-hour speech avoided any personal attacks on Mr. Netanyahu or any mention of his legal imbroglio.
“It’s not relevant,” said Michal Peled, 43, a lawyer who attended the launch. “We came for something else.”
Mr. Saar has tried to draw policy distinctions with Mr. Netanyahu. He derides the two-state solution, the internationally accepted idea of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, for instance, as a “slogan” and an “illusion.” Mr. Netanyahu grudgingly endorsed the idea of Palestinian statehood a decade ago, albeit with caveats, but has since retreated.
And while Mr. Netanyahu has expanded Israeli settlements in the West Bank and pledged to annex parts of it if re-elected, Mr. Saar says the prime minister has not been aggressive enough in pressing Israeli control there.
Mr. Saar has made campaign stops at an unauthorized Bedouin village in the occupied West Bank that Mr. Netanyahu has pledged, but failed, to evacuate as well as particularly contentious settlement projects in and around Jerusalem that have also long been on hold because of intense international pressure.
“Saar has elected to manipulate the 3 most problematic, potentially volatile issues to embarrass Netanyahu and garner support,” Daniel Seidemann, a veteran anti-settlement advocate, wrote on Thursday on Twitter.
Mr. Saar, a lawyer by training, began his political career with a stint as cabinet secretary for Mr. Netanyahu during his first term in office in the late 1990s.
As a minister, Mr. Saar raised teachers’ salaries, championed a tough policy toward unauthorized African immigrants and asylum seekers, and redrew municipal boundaries in remote areas to increase the tax revenues of poorer towns.
His dour image was softened a bit by his decision in 2014 to take a time out from politics.
In a second marriage with a popular Israeli journalist and news anchor, Geula Even-Saar, he said he wanted to be home to see his infant son David take his first steps, though many analysts attributed the hiatus to tensions with Mr. Netanyahu, whose habit has been to cut down potential rivals. He announced his comeback in 2017, saying he had returned “to strengthen the Likud.”
Mr. Saar won the No. 2 spot on the party list in 2008 and 2012, but slipped a few places down in February’s contest. Mr. Netanyahu last fought a leadership challenge against Danny Danon in 2014 and won 75 percent of the vote. Mr. Danon is now Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations.
In an odd twist, Mr. Saar has had a run-in with a professed clairvoyant who belittled his chances on television and hinted at fodder for a negative campaign against him. The clairvoyant and has now been threatened with a suit by Mr. Saar’s lawyers.
Even if Mr. Saar loses, political analysts said that if he wins as much as 30 or 40 percent of the vote, he will be well positioned as a front-runner in the post-Netanyahu era.
Mr. Netanyahu has been leaving nothing to chance, crisscrossing the country on a whirlwind campaign tour and holding multiple meetings each night at homes and venues packed with loyalists.
He has accused Mr. Saar in the past of conspiring to oust him and some expect a dirty fight. Mr. Saar has requested cameras at primary polling stations and his camp has complained that thousands of supporters’ names had been struck from the voter rolls. Likud, which has up to 120,000 members, said many of them had not paid their dues.
The night of Mr. Saar’s campaign launch in Or Yehuda, Mr. Netanyahu appeared in three towns in central Israel and recorded a Facebook Live video.
“We will win big,” Mr. Netanyahu vowed, exhorting Likudniks not to believe the election polls that currently give a slight advantage to Likud’s main rival, the centrist Blue and White party and its allied center-left bloc.
Across the road from Mr. Saar’s kickoff at the wedding hall, a ragtag bunch of about a dozen Netanyahu supporters were yelling “Bibi! Bibi!” stomping on a Saar campaign T-shirt and branding his supporters as “traitors.”