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Netanyahu's Likud party agrees to hold leadership vote, reports say

Likud will hold vote within six weeks, Israeli media reported on Sunday, as premier faces trial in three corruption cases
Israel's Prime Minister Netanyahu, left, and Defence Minister Naftali Bennett on Sunday visit army base in Israeli-annexed Golan Heights overlooking Syria (AFP)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party will hold a leadership vote within the next six weeks, Israeli media reported on Sunday, as the premier faces trial in three corruption cases.

The YNet news website said Netanyahu, who is the party chairman, has agreed with the head of Likud's central committee, Haim Katz, to hold the leadership vote, Reuters reported. A Likud party spokesman was not immediately reachable for comment.

Netanyahu and Katz's decision did not touch upon whether the vote would be held before the dissolution of the Knesset on 11 December, when the mandate to form a government ends, or after, Haaretz reported.

The announcement follows calls from Likud parliamentarian and challenger Gideon Saar to hold the leadership vote before the Knesset dissolves, and if he wins, to immediately form a coalition government with the Blue and White party, the newspaper said on its website.

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Saar’s call for a snap contest to give the winner a chance to form a coalition would avoid sending the country to a third consecutive election, the Times of Israel said. Saar later wrote on Twitter that he "welcomes the prime minister's agreement to hold primaries for party leadership".

Netanyahu has been unable to form a government following two national elections in April and September of this year.

According to Channel 12 news, while the premier “didn’t rule out” agreeing to Saar’s call to hold the leadership contest in the 17 days remaining to avoid general elections, the scenario was seen as unlikely.

Saar submitted an official request for a snap leadership primary to Katz on Sunday morning, after having described Netanyahu's response to his indictment - the prime minister called it an "attempted coup" - as "wrong and irresponsible", Haaretz said.

In the letter to the Central Committee chairman, Saar said: "This move has the power to prevent Israel's decline into unnecessary third elections, which Prime Minister Netanyahu himself described as "letting the system go haywire".

Since a government can still be formed in the current Knesset, Saar said, "there is a chance to do to put an end to the political crisis that has been going on for as long as a year".

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit’s bombshell Thursday announcement of charges against the prime minister sent shock-waves through the Likud party and helped drive the first serious leadership challenge to Netanyahu since late party leader Ariel Sharon left in 2005 to form the Kadima party, leaving Netanyahu at the helm, the Times of Israel said.

It also marked the first time in Israel’s history that a serving prime minister has faced criminal charges, casting a heavy shadow over Israel’s longest-serving prime minister and his ongoing attempts to remain in power, the Times added.

Netanyahu has denied the charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust and said he would stay in office and defend himself.

On Sunday, Netanyahu visited an army base near the border with conflict-ravaged Syria, where he accused Iran of planning attacks against Israel and said everything possible would be done to prevent them, AFP reported.

"We will also take action to thwart Iran's effort to turn Iraq and Yemen into bases for launching rockets and missiles" at Israel, he added.