JERUSALEM: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu easily won a vote to keep the Likud party helm, the party said on Friday, in a boost ahead of what is likely to be a hard-fought general election in March.
A Likud tally gave Netanyahu 72.5% of votes in Thursday’s party ballot, against 27.5% for challenger Gideon Saar, who conceded defeat, tweeting that he would now back the incumbent “for the sake of a Likud victory in the (general) election”.
The results awaited official confirmation by Israel’s Elections Committee.
The challenge by Saar, a former education and interior minister, had added to pressures that have mounted this year on the four-term premier, who is under indictment and fighting for political survival.
In November, Netanyahu was charged with corruption in three criminal cases and he has twice failed to form a government in the wake of two inconclusive national ballots, held in April and September.
Netanyahu’s centrist rival in those elections, Benny Gantz of the Blue and White party, was also unable to form a coalition government, leading to political deadlock and an unprecedented third election on March 2.
Netanyahu has cast the legal case against him as a political witch-hunt orchestrated by the media and an Israeli left hoping to oust him.
Though the troubles of “King Bibi”, as he is nicknamed by his fans, do not seem to have dented the loyalty Netanyahu commands among his supporters, some Likud members have said it is time for fresh leadership.
Netanyahu had played down Saar’s challenge, talking up his own security credentials and international prowess.
Thanking supporters for the “huge” Likud leadership victory, Netanyahu tweeted that he would “continue leading the State of Israel to unprecedented achievements”.