Netanyahu re-elected head of Israel's ruling Likud
TEL AVIV - Agence France-Presse
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a speech after winning another term as leader of the ruling Likud party, on January 1, 2015, in the Israeli coastal city of Tel Aviv. AFP PhotoIsraeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu won another term as leader of the ruling rightwing Likud ahead of a snap election, the faction said Jan. 1, easily defeating his lone hard-right challenger.
The party primary took place ahead of elections in the spring when Netanyahu, who has been in power since 2009, will seek to win a third straight term in office and a fourth in total. He served a first stint as premier between 1996 and 1999.
The results of Wednesday's ballot clear the way for Netanyahu to lead his Likud party into battle for the March 17 election.
"With nearly 60 percent of the ballots counted, Benjamin Netanyahu took 80 percent of the vote and Danny Danon 20 percent," Likud spokeswoman Noga Katz told AFP.
Final results are due out later Sunday.
Likud's 96,651 members also voted to determine frontrunners on the party list, with 70 candidates in the running.
An interim count suggested the lineup was largely a reshuffle of the 18 faces who served in the outgoing government.
In a speech at the party's headquarters in Tel Aviv, Netanyahu hailed the vote as a success, saying the party had chosen an "excellent list" that would help him win re-election.
"It is a list of a governing party that can continue to lead Israel... that will help us defeat the left under Tzipi (Livni) and Bujie (Isaac Herzog), a winning team that will help me return and continue to lead Israel in security, with responsibility in the spirit of the true Likud," he said.
Livni's centrist HaTnuah has joined forces with Herzog and his opposition Labour party to run on a joint list in the March elections.
Official estimates put turnout in the primary at more than 53 percent, lower than the previous party ballot when it stood at 60 percent.
Two separate primaries took place in 2012, with Netanyahu winning a leadership vote in January and again in November, when Likud members voted out three leading moderates as they selected the party list, heralding a shift to the right.
General elections had been due in late 2017, but the polls were brought forward by Netanyahu in early December after the collapse of his fractious coalition.
Polls suggest Likud is likely to face a challenge from the centre-left alliance of Labour and HaTnuah, in a finding reinforced by a survey released late Wednesday by Israel's Channel 10 television.
If elections were to be held today, the Labour-HaTnuah alliance would win a narrow majority of 23 seats compared with 21 for Likud, with the far-right Jewish Home party coming in third with 17, the poll found.
Asked who would be better suited to serve as premier, 43 percent flagged Netanyahu, while 33 percent said Herzog. The channel did not say how many respondents were surveyed, nor did it give a margin of error.
Observers say a centre-left government would be much more likely to resume peace talks with the Palestinians, which collapsed in mutual recrimination in April, largely over the issue of Israeli settlement building. During the talks, Livni was Israel's chief negotiator.
The left has also criticised Israel's immigration policy, after Netanyahu's government pushed for a harsher crackdown on African asylum-seekers.
Commentator Yoaz Hendel said ahead of the primary that Likud was a party with little to offer in terms of dynamic leaders likely to garner votes.
"When Likud loses the ability to present itself as a rightwing, liberal, pragmatic party, it also loses its ability to govern. It loses its ability to attract voters from the centre," he wrote in Yediot Aharonot newspaper.
A law passed in March which raises the electoral threshold to 3.25 percent from 2.0 percent is likely to see Israel's many smaller parties making strategic alliances in order to secure enough votes to be represented in parliament.