Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Likud Knesset member Gideon Sa’ar’s short yet intense campaigns for the leadership of the Likud Party came to an end on Wednesday, and the party’s 116,048 registered members will now decide who will navigate the party through Israel’s March 2 election.

The party has set up 106 voting stations nationwide, which opened at 7 a.m. and will close at 11 p.m. The final results will be announced Friday morning. Internal polls have shown Netanyahu is likely to win, but Sa’ar is expected to prove a substantial rival.

The stormy weather has dampened hopes for high voter turnout and Likud officials in both camps have been sparing no effort to urge the party’s registered members to brave the wind and rain and cast their ballots in an internal election that many believe will determine the Likud’s standing going into the next general election.

The March 2 vote will be the country’s third general election in under 12 months, a first in Israeli history. The new election was called after neither Netanyahu nor challenger Blue and White leader Benny Gantz were able to form a government following the Sept. 17 vote.

Sa’ar is expected to draw at least 30 percent of the votes in the Likud leadership primary. Sources in his camp have said that anything under that number will be considered a failure. Should he secure 30-40 percent of the votes, his position in the party will be strengthened; anything over 40 percent will pose a serious challenge for Netanyahu.

According to Likud insiders, regardless of the results, the primaries have woken up the party’s weary constituency, something that will likely be reflected in the polls come March.

Appealing to voters in a special message in Israel Hayom, Netanyahu noted his national and international achievements on Israel’s behalf.

“Under my leadership, we have marked tremendous achievement for Israel. The economy is booming. Employment, GDP per capita, average wages, minimum wages, exports, tourism, investments—are all at an all-time high, while unemployment is at an all-time low.

“We brought American recognition of our sovereignty in the Golan, in Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and the legality of Jewish settlement in Judea and Samaria. We have [made] Israel into a superpower. I am proud to have led the [country’s biggest] free economy, security buildup, and political boom of all time. I did it on your behalf, with great national pride.”

Netanyahu further said that his “fight against a nuclear Iran stopped it in every arena. Had it not been for these efforts, Iran would have had nuclear weapons years ago. We are preventing it from basing itself in Syria and we are bringing closer Arab states that are already openly talking about normalization and peace with Israel.

“I am proud that you have entrusted me with the privilege to secure all these great achievements and I ask you for the mandate to bring more great achievements our way.  I have dedicated my life to the Likud and now I ask for your confidence. Go vote despite the stormy weather. Vote for me, for you, for our movement and our country.”

Sa’ar, for his part, stressed that the Likud was in a crucial need of a leadership change.

“My brothers and sisters in the Likud—today’s primaries are fateful, for both the Likud and the state. There is a public majority that supports our way. But after losing the majority in the Knesset for the first time in a decade and failing to form a government twice, change is necessary. If we fail to change Likud’s leadership today, we run the very real risk of losing to our rival come the March 2 elections,” he wrote in a statement.

“The polls consistently prove that only I can bolster the right-wing bloc and form a strong Likud government. Only I can bring home voters who left us, and only I can bring in new voters. I am the only one who can unite the public, and that is something we need today, more than ever.”

The country’s political deadlock must end, he said.

“We have to free the country from the ongoing torture of endless election campaigns and finally address the challenges it faces and the issues on the public agenda: education, health, periphery, law reform and the Gaza problem.”

This article first appeared in Israel Hayom.

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