Israel's governing Likud Party was holding primaries on Thursday, in the first serious internal challenge to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu- being more than a decade in power.
Veteran politician Gideon Saar hopes to unseat Netanyahu, arguing that he will be better placed to form a government in national elections in March after Netanyahu failed twice to do so, in two repeat elections this year.
Despite the shadow of corruption indictments hanging over him, Netanyahu has stood firmly behind the long-serving leader and remains popular among Likud members and the fiercely loyal Party- which has had only four leaders since its inception in the 1970s.
He is expected to defeat Saar handily and a win could strengthen his hand going into the next national vote.
But Saar, who has garnered support from a handful of Likud backbenchers, could benefit from stormy weather that may keep turnout low. If he wins, he would become Likud's candidate for prime minister in the March polls.
“We are imbued with the spirit of victory,” lawmaker Yoav Kisch, Saar's campaign manager, told Israeli Army Radio. “This candidacy is good for the party and I believe can also bring the change and the hope for a revolution in the Likud.”
Netanyahu has portrayed Saar as a naive, while depicting himself as a security buff and master of international diplomacy.
At a critical moment a day before the primary- seen as an embarrassment, Netanyahu was rushed off stage after a rocket was fired from Gaza, setting off an air raid siren at a campaign rally in the southern city of Ashkelon on Wednesday.
A similar incident happened in September when Netanyahu was in the city of Ashdod, campaigning for the second general Israeli election of the year.
Polls would close at 11 p.m. and results are expected on early Friday.
Netanyahu faces charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust in three corruption cases, in which he is accused of trading legislative or regulatory favours in exchange for lavish gifts or favourable media coverage.
He denies any wrongdoing and has waged an angry campaign against the media and law enforcement officials he believes are bent on ousting him from the office. His supporters have tried to paint Saar as of the same persuasion.
The indictments against Netanyahu came amid months of political deadlock in Israel, which after two inconclusive elections is headed toward a third unprecedented national vote in less than a year.
Netanyahu's main rival- former military chief Benny Gantz, was also unable to form a government and while the two professed eagerness to form a unity government, they differed on its composition and who would lead it, thus deepening the stalemate.
Recent polls show that with Saar as the leader, Likud would make a more powerful bloc with its natural ultra-Orthodox and nationalist allies. Saar would also be in an easier position to create a national unity government with the centrist Blue and White party if, as expected, the upcoming March election produces a deadlock like the previous two rounds have.