Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu won another term as leader of the ruling rightwing Likud party ahead of a snap election, the faction said Thursday, easily defeating his lone hard-right challenger.
A party primary took place Wednesday ahead of early elections, in which Netanyahu, in power since 2009, will seek to win a third straight term and a fourth in total. He served a first stint between 1996 and 1999.
With 60 percent of ballots counted, all indications were that Netanyahu won some 80 percent of the vote compared to Danny Danon, from the party's far-right fringe, a party spokeswoman said.
That clears the way for Netanyahu to lead Likud into the March 17 general election battle.
In a speech at party headquarters in Tel Aviv, the premier hailed the vote as a success, saying Likud 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 Labour party to run on a joint list in March.
Likud's 96,651 members also voted to determine frontrunners on the party list, with 70 candidates in the running.
Final results are due out later Thursday but an interim count suggested the lineup was largely a reshuffle of the 18 faces who served in the outgoing parliament.
"We're taking the same lineup and starting again," said Denis Charbit, political science expert at Israel's Open University.
"The fact is that this list is more or less the same as the previous one, in that it is markedly rightwing," he told AFP.
- Likud trails centre-left -
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With recent polls indicating a surge in support for the far-right nationalist Jewish Home party led by Naftali Bennett, it was no surprise Likud members were keen to avoid any slide towards the centre.
"The Likud list is not likely to attract centrist voters, but the party's main concern is the popularity of Bennett with rightwing voters," he said. The rightwing bloc is widely expected to win a majority of seats in the March election.
Two separate primaries took place in 2012, with Netanyahu winning a leadership vote in January and again in November, when 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 Netanyahu brought the polls forward after the collapse of his fractious coalition in early December.
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 Channel 10 television.
If elections were to be held today, that alliance would win a narrow majority of 23 seats compared with 21 for Likud and with Jewish Home third at 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 or give the margin of error.
Observers say a centre-left government would be much more likely to resume peace talks with the Palestinians. Negotiations 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.