Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has won a new mandate to head his right-wing Likud party, defeating an ultranationalist challenger opposed to any land-for-peace deal with Palestinians.
Initial results published on Wednesday after voting held a day earlier showed Netanyahu captured a resounding majority of party ballots in a poll that some political commentators said could be a harbinger to an early general election ahead of a U.S. presidential vote this year.
Israel’s next national vote is due in late 2013.
With opinion polls showing Likud on course for victory, holding the ballot earlier could put Netanyahu in a better position to deal with what many Israelis believe will be pressure from Barack Obama for peace concessions should the Democrat win a second term in November.
“I thank you all for the confidence and renewed support you have given me,” Netanyahu said in a victory speech in Tel Aviv, as initial results showed him way ahead of his sole rival, far-right settler, Moshe Feiglin.
“Together we shall continue to lead the nation,” Netanyahu said. “We have proven the Likud is a strong and united movement.”
Yigal Movermacher, a party spokesman, said a tally of some 40 percent of ballots showed Netanyahu had won 80 percent and that official results would be published later on Wednesday.
Feiglin polled about 20 percent, similar to his 24 percent showing in their last contest in 2007, initial results showed.
He had had little chance of unseating Netanyahu but had hoped to provide a voice for settlers in the party opposed to Israel giving up land they see as a biblical birthright for peace.
In an interview with Reuters, Feiglin said he advocated Israeli annexation of West Bank and the provision of financial incentives to encourage Palestinians to leave.
U.S.-sponsored peace talks stalled shortly after they began in 2010 in a dispute over settlement building in the West Bank.
Exploratory talks in Jordan between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators in recent weeks ended in deadlock without any agreement to restart full negotiations.
While Netanyahu has not said he wanted an early general election, “he prefers to lead and not be dragged there”, Likud legislator Danny Danon told Reuters.
In his speech, Netanyahu said “there is time yet” before any national vote would be held, leaving the door open for further political maneuvers. Campaign aide Haim Bibas said Netanyahu would decide if to seek an early vote over the next two months.
The Likud poll will be followed by a Kadima primary election on March 27. Both Kadima and the left-of-centre Labour party have been actively recruiting popular figures, and some influential wild cards, such as former journalist Yair Lapid, have thrown their hats into the electoral ring as well.
Editing by Maria Golovnina