Senior member of Netanyahu's party breaks away as Israeli election beckons

FILE PHOTO: Gideon Saar, a Likud party member, speaks to supporters in Rishon Lezion, Israel December 26, 2019. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - A prominent rival of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the right-wing Likud party announced on Tuesday a breakaway bid aimed at defeating the Israeli leader in a looming early national election.

Gideon Saar, who shares many of Netanyahu’s right-wing views, said he was forming a new political movement, a year after losing an internal Likud leadership vote. The decision seemed unlikely to trigger any major walkout in Likud.

But Saar’s challenge could appeal to conservative voters who have backed Netanyahu in the past but may now have soured on the veteran politician, on trial over alleged corruption he denies and under constant public fire over his handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

At a news conference, Saar, a 53-year-old legislator, likened Likud members’ support for Netanyahu to that of a “personality cult”, accusing Israel’s longest-serving leader of failing to deliver on promised national unity and stability.

Announcing his resignation from Likud and parliament, Saar said: “I have decided to establish and lead a new political movement in which I will run in the coming election against Netanyahu in order to replace him as prime minister.”

He made the move less than a week after parliament gave preliminary approval to a dissolution bill backed by Netanyahu’s main governing partner, Defence Minister Benny Gantz, who heads the centrist Blue and White party.

Netanyahu and Gantz formed a “unity” government in May after three inconclusive elections since April 2019. But they are at odds over a national budget, and failure to ratify a fiscal package in parliament by Dec. 23 would trigger a poll in March.

Separately, the dissolution legislation is already in committee and needs to pass three as yet unscheduled parliamentary votes to become law.

Saar has held several cabinet posts in Netanyahu-led governments and was widely seen as a potential successor. Israel’s main TV channels carried his news conference live on its evening newscasts.

Editing by Timothy Heritage