Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday claimed a solid victory over his sole opponent for the leadership of his Likud party, bolstering his position ahead of possible early elections.
Netanyahu, who had been expected to sail to victory in the primary, garnered 77 percent of the vote, easily beating a challenge from hardline settler Moshe Feiglin who received 23 percent of votes cast, according to the final tally. The party said voter turnout was 48 percent despite a push by Netanyahu for a strong turnout in the days leading up to the poll.
The result will shore up Netanyahu's position within his own party, commentators said, raising the prospect that general elections scheduled for late 2013 would be moved up, possibly before US presidential elections in November.
Netanyahu announced his victory early on Wednesday, before official results were released.
"I thank you for the confidence and the renewed support that you have given me," he told cheering supporters in the early hours.
Earlier, Netanyahu had declared the vote a victory for "the real Likud," an apparent reference to Feiglin's supporters, many of whom registered with Likud to vote in the primary but back more conservative parties in the general elections.
"Today, the real Likud won. We proved that our strength is our unity. We will continue to lead the country in a responsible way... for the good of all Israelis," he said.
Feiglin, a controversial member of Israel's extreme-right, had sought to shake up the primary by translating discontent among Israel's settler movement into punitive votes against Netanyahu.
He has challenged Netanyahu in previous primaries, securing around 25 percent of the vote in August 2007.
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Even before the official results had landed, Netanyahu appeared to have won a commanding victory, and Israel's newspapers splashed speculation about an early election across their front pages.
"Victory for Netanyahu, now he contemplates early elections," daily Maariv headlined its main article.
Top-selling Yediot Aharonot, quoting unnamed associates of Netanyahu, said the premier was considering moving up elections currently expected around November 2013, citing "the desire to hold elections before the US elections, because if (US President Barack) Obama wins another term he could try to harm Netanyahu."
The Israeli leader has clashed with Obama on several occasions as Washington has sought to facilitate peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, and some in Israel fear Obama could be more assertive in pressuring Israel for concessions if he wins a second term later this year.
"Netanyahu could be tempted to take the initiative so he can better face a reelected Obama, who could be waiting for him with a stick next year," political commentator Hanan Crystal told AFP.
Netanyahu also finds himself in strong position domestically should he decide to move up the vote, with polls showing him far ahead of his potential competitors for the premiership, and his Likud party outpolling the opposition.
In his victory speech, Netanyahu appeared to try to put speculation about the elections to rest by telling supporters "we have time." But local media noted that he failed to rule out the possibility that the vote would be advanced.
Speculation about a decision to move up elections has been swirling since at least December, when Netanyahu said he would move up the Likud primary vote to January 31.
He denied the decision was linked to early elections, saying it was a bid to save money by holding the vote on the same day as the Likud party convention.