JERUSALEM—Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared victory early Friday in his primary election battle for leadership of the Likud party.
The apparent victory means that Netanyahu will lead Likud into March elections, the country’s third election in less than a year. He is also likely to seize on the victory as he battles criminal corruption charges.
“A giant victory,” Netanyahu tweeted, just over an hour after polls closed on Thursday.
“Thanks to the members of Likud for the trust, support and love,” he said. “God willing, I will lead Likud to a big victory in the coming elections.”
Partial results reported by Israeli TV stations showed Netanyahu capturing between 70 percent and 80 percent of the vote, trouncing his challenger, veteran Likud party member Gideon Saar.
Official results are expected later Friday.
In the primary vote, Netanyahu faced the first serious internal challenge to his decade-long rule following his failure to form a government.
Then, amid the months of political deadlock after two inconclusive elections, Netanyahu was accused of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust in three corruption cases. The charges include conspiring to trade legislative or regulatory favors for lavish gifts or favorable media coverage. He denies wrongdoing and has accused the media and law enforcement officials of plotting to oust him. His supporters have accused Saar of being part of the same conspiracy.
Saar hoped to unseat Netanyahu, telling voters he would be better placed to form a government after the national elections in March.
Despite the indictment, Netanyahu remains popular among Likud members, and the fiercely loyal party—which has only had four leaders since its inception in the 1970s—stood firmly behind the long-serving leader. He was expected to defeat Saar, and a win could strengthen his hand going into the next national vote.
“For years, I have been working for you for the sake of our beloved country. Now I am asking for your support,” Netanyahu wrote on Facebook. ”A big victory for me in the primaries will ensure a huge victory in the Knesset elections.”
Saar garnered support from a handful of Likud backbenchers.
Netanyahu has portrayed Saar as inexperienced, while depicting himself as a master of international diplomacy and a scourge to Israel’s enemies.
Netanyahu was rushed off stage Wednesday after a rocket fired from Gaza set off an air raid siren at a campaign rally in the southern city of Ashkelon. Israel responded with a wave of airstrikes early Thursday. There were no reports of casualties or major damage.
Polls closed at 11 p.m. local time. Just under 50 percent of 116,000 eligible voters cast ballots, with many apparently deterred by the weather.
Netanyahu’s main rival, former military chief Benny Gantz, was also unable to form a government after the September vote. While the two professed eagerness to form a unity government, they differed on its composition and who would lead it, deepening the stalemate.
Recent polls were again wrong in predicting public sentiment. Reports before the election said that Saar as Likud leader would make a more powerful bloc with its natural ultra-Orthodox and nationalist allies. Saar was also said to be in an easier position to create a national unity government with Gantz’s centrist Blue and White party if, as expected, the March election produces a deadlock.
Speaking on television, Saar said he was best positioned to lead Likud to victory. He described Blue and White as a “balloon” comprised of various factions unified by the sole goal of toppling Netanyahu. If Netanyahu goes, he said, a good chunk of Blue and White’s supporters would return to Likud. “If I win today, we will also win on March 2,” he said.
Whatever the results are, said Avraham Diskin, a political scientist at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the primary “definitely strengthens Saar unless he is humiliated in the elections today, and that’s not very likely to happen.”
The Supreme Court is set next week to begin considering the question of whether an indicted member of parliament can be tasked with forming a new government. It’s not clear when a ruling would be handed down.
In recent days, Netanyahu has appeared rejuvenated, holding campaign events in which he has met with Likud members face to face, often in small gatherings.
Netanyahu has trumpeted his close ties to U.S. President Donald Trump, Russian President Vladimir Putin, and other world leaders. He has also presented himself as the best candidate to protect Israel, pointing to a wave of recent military operations against Iran-linked targets across the region.
On Thursday, Netanyahu’s office said he spoke to Putin to again request the release of an Israeli woman who was arrested on drug charges while traveling through Moscow earlier this year. They also discussed Iran and Syria.
The prolonged political uncertainty in Israel led the Trump administration to delay the release of its long-anticipated Mideast peace plan, which Palestinian politicians have already rejected over what they view as the administration’s unfair bias toward Israel.
By Tia Goldenberg and Patty Nieberg. With editing by The Epoch Times.