Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu wins landslide victory in Likud primary
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Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu wins landslide victory in Likud primary

Long-serving leader gets much-needed boost ahead of third election in less than a year, as he battles allegations of corruption and bribery

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.  (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has scored a landslide victory in a primary race for leadership of the ruling Likud party, giving the embattled leader a boost ahead of the country’s third election in less than a year.

The strong showing by Israel’s longest-serving leader could give him another opportunity to form a government following the March election, after falling short in two previous attempts this year.

By easily fending off Likud legislator Gideon Saar, he also kept alive his hopes of winning immunity from prosecution after being indicted last month on a series of corruption charges.

“A giant victory,” Mr Netanyahu tweeted early on Friday, just over an hour after polls closed.

“Thanks to the members of Likud for the trust, support and love,” he added. “God willing, I will lead Likud to a big victory in the coming elections.”

In a tweet, Mr Saar congratulated him and said he would support the prime minister in the national election. “I am absolutely comfortable with my decision to run,” he added. “Whoever isn’t ready to take a risk for the path he believes in will never win.”

Official results released by Likud showed Mr Netanyahu capturing 41,792 votes, or 72%, compared with 15,885 votes, or 28%, for Mr Saar.

While removing any doubts about Mr Netanyahu’s standing in the ruling party, the primary is likely to prolong Israel’s political uncertainty. He will remain at the helm of Likud until the March elections, and his lingering legal troubles could again scuttle efforts to form a government after that.

In September’s election, Likud and its main rival, the centrist Blue and White party, were unable to secure a parliamentary majority and form a government on their own.

The two parties together captured a solid majority of parliamentary seats, leaving a national unity government as the best way out of the crisis, but Blue and White has refused to sit in a partnership with Mr Netanyahu when he is under indictment.

Opinion polls predict a similar outcome in the March election, raising the possibility of months of continued paralysis. The country already has been run by a caretaker government for the past year.

Mr Netanyahu, who has led the country for the past decade, maintained his position on the political right by cultivating an image as a veteran statesman with close ties to US President Donald Trump, Russian President Vladimir Putin and other world leaders.

His refusal to make any concessions to the Palestinians was rewarded after Mr Trump took office, as the US began openly siding with Israel on several key issues.

His hardline approach to Iran has also proved popular. He was a staunch opponent of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, which has unravelled since Mr Trump withdrew from the agreement.

A wave of Israeli strikes on Iran-linked targets in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq has burnished Mr Netanyahu’s claims to have protected Israel from its enemies.

His fortunes have nevertheless waned over the past year, after he was unable to form a government following the unprecedented back-to-back elections in March and September. His party came in second place in September, leading many observers to view the vote as the beginning of the end.

In November, he was indicted on charges of fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes, the culmination of three long-running corruption investigations. He vowed to remain in office, dismissing the indictment as an “attempted coup” by hostile media and law enforcement.

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