Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his key rival within Likud party ranks, former education and interior minister Gideon Sa'ar faced off in the party leadership vote on Thursday.
Some 116,048 members of Likud began voting at 106 polling stations across the country from 9 am local time to set the stage for a showdown that makes for the most serious challenge to Netanyahu's Likud leadership in years.
The polling stations will remain open until 11 pm amid fears that wind and rain could keep voter turnout down, with the preliminary results expected sometime past midnight.
A former aide and senior Cabinet minister under Netanyahu, Sa'ar has long been considered a rising star in Likud and a potential future heir, but while others are patiently waiting for Netanyahu to step down on his own, Sa'ar has been the only one who has dared to take the incumbent head-on.
Netanyahu is expected to brush off Sa'ar's challenge for the Likud leadership, with Israeli media estimating Sa'ar's chances to unseat Netanyahu are slim.
Sa'ar's allies will consider a result of over 30% support of Likud members as a win, positioning their candidate to lead the party when Netanyahu steps down.
However, after failing to build up a coalition in two consecutive votes, Netanyahu's capacity to form a government in the wake of the third vote cannot be taken for granted.
Netanyahu faces charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust in three corruption cases in which he is accused of trading legislative or regulatory favors in exchange for lavish gifts or favorable media coverage.
He denies any wrongdoing and has waged an angry campaign against the media and law enforcement officials that he said are bent on ousting him from office.
Outwardly, Likud members have strongly supported their leader and joined in denouncing the alleged "coup" of the liberal elites against him.
Even amid the political disarray, Sa'ar's challenge is a risky maneuver in a party that fiercely values loyalty and has had only four leaders in its 70-plus-year history. Netanyahu himself has denounced Sa'ar as "subversive."
Netanyahu said on Wednesday that he “certainly” plans to annex the Jordan Valley in the near future, despite recent reports suggesting plans have entered a “deep freeze” over concerns that the move could potentially intensify confrontation with the International Criminal Court.
The ICC Chief Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda announced on Friday she is ready to investigate whether Israel was committing war crimes in the Palestinian Territories.
Netanyahu in a rare interview conducted with Army Radio said: “I intend to lead for American recognition of our sovereignty in the Jordan Valley and in all the settlements in the West Bank, as I have led the recognition of the Golan Heights and Jerusalem, Israel’s capital.”
The premier added that there’s a legal hurdle for annexation during an interim government, “but God willing, I will do it when I get elected” - referring to the next general vote in March.
The country's longest-serving premier also talked about his relationship with Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin. According to Netanyahu, Putin told him that “if it wasn’t for you and our relationship, we could have been already at war, in confrontation.”
Netanyahu disclosed that Israel Air Force jets were close to colliding with Russian aircraft on four separate occasions, most likely over Syrian territory, but thanks to close coordination between the armies, these incidents did not occur.
Regarding reports of Netanyahu’s intention to request immunity from the Israeli parliament, he remained tight-lipped, with the deadline for such a request to be submitted expiring next week.
Netanyahu also appeared Wednesday at an election event in the southern city of Ashkelon as rocket fire was launched from the Gaza Strip.
The sirens warning of the incoming rocket fire blared at around 9 pm in Ashkelon and other communities bordering the Hamas-controlled enclave.
IDF said that the Iron Dome missile defense system intercepted a projectile fired at southern Israel. No damage or casualties were reported.
Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, were campaigning in Ashkelon ahead of Thursday's leadership primaries.
The prime minister was immediately rushed to safety by his security team, a scene reminiscent of a September incident in the city of Ashdod.
"Hamas and Jihad do not want me to win," Netanyahu said after being allowed back on stage. "The one who tried to make an impression the last time, is no longer with us, and the one who tried to make an impression now should start packing the bags,” he said, referring to the Islamic Jihad commander Baha Abu Al-Ata, who was assassinated by the Israeli military last month.
Three months ago, Netanyahu was evacuated during a rocket siren that blared mid-speech as the prime minister was rallying support a week before the September 17 national ballot.
At the time, Netanyahu's quick departure off stage was widely criticized by his political opponents.
During the September incident, attendees of the event remained in the auditorium and did not run for shelter.
The winner of Thursday's vote will lead Likud into the third general election in less than a year, slated for March 2, where he will face the head of the Blue & White alliance Benny Gantz.
First published: 09:25 , 12.26.19