Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has won a landslide victory in a primary election for leadership of the ruling Likud party.
Official results announced early Friday showed Netanyahu capturing 72% of the votes, compared with 28% for challenger Gideon Saar.
Earlier, Netanyahu had declared a “huge victory.”
THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. An earlier AP story follows:
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared early Friday to be on his way to a landslide victory in a primary race for leadership of the ruling Likud party, giving the embattled leader an important 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 earlier this year. The apparent victory over Likud lawmaker Gideon Saar also keeps alive Netanyahu’s hopes of winning immunity from prosecution after being indicted last month on a series of corruption charges.
“A giant victory,” Netanyahu tweeted early 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, Saar congratulated Netanyahu 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.”
The result of the primary will also prolong Israel’s political uncertainty. Despite Likud’s strong position, the March vote was expected to leave the party and its main rival, the centrist Blue and White, unable to form a government on their own, and Netanyahu’s lingering legal troubles could again scuttle efforts to form a national unity government.
Israeli TV stations, reporting partial results from polling stations across the country, estimated that Netanyahu had received 70% to 80% of the votes cast. Turnout was just under 50% of the party’s 116,000 members, with many voters apparently staying home because of cold, rainy weather.
Netanyahu, who has led the country for the past decade, has maintained his position atop the political right by cultivating an image as a veteran statesman with close ties to U.S. President Donald Trump, Russian President Vladimir Putin and other world leaders.
His refusal over the last decade to make any concessions to the Palestinians was rewarded after Trump took office, as the U.S. began openly siding with Israel on several key issues, validating Netanyahu’s approach in the eyes of many Israelis and adding to his mystique.
Netanyahu’s hard-line approach to Iran has also proved popular. He was a staunch opponent of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, which has unraveled since Trump withdrew from the agreement. A wave of Israeli strikes on Iran-linked targets in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq has burnished Netanyahu’s claims to having protected Israel from its enemies.
His fortunes have nevertheless waned over the past year, after he was unable to form a government following unprecedented back-to-back elections in March and September. His party came in second place in September’s elections, leading many observers to view the vote as the beginning of the end.
In November, Netanyahu was indicted on charges of fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes, the culmination of three long-running corruption investigations. The Blue and White Party, led by former army chief of staff Benny Gantz, has refused to sit in a government led by an indicted prime minister.
Netanyahu has vowed to remain in office, dismissing the indictment as an “attempted coup” by hostile media and law enforcement.
Opinion polls have forecast a similar outcome in the March vote, with Likud and Blue and White leading the pack and Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party emerging as the kingmaker. Lieberman has refused to endorse Netanyahu or Gantz, saying he will only serve in a unity government. That could signal months of paralysis after the next election.
Reuven Hazan, a political science professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said a victory for Netanyahu would have no impact on the general election.
“It just means that the faithful have circled the wagons. It means nothing for the elections except that he looks good. He looks strengthened,” Hazan said. “It simply means that he’s managed to maintain control of the party.”
Netanyahu appeared rejuvenated in recent weeks as he hit the campaign trail, doing several live events a day in which he rallied supporters in small gatherings and face-to-face meetings.
“The Likudniks have witnessed an astonishing event play out in the past two weeks, in which a 70-year-old leader who has had his fill of terms in office has thrown himself at every last registered party member,” Israeli columnist Ben Caspit wrote in the Maariv daily.
The approach appears to have paid off and may serve as a template for a more effective general election campaign. In the meantime, Israel will remain in limbo for at least another two months.
Netanyahu is desperate to remain in office, where he is best positioned to fight the corruption charges. Israeli law does not require a sitting prime minister to resign if indicted. Netanyahu hopes that the coming election will deliver him a majority of lawmakers in favor of granting him immunity from prosecution.
“His game is not to get seats. His game is to be prime minister because that is a shield from indictment,” Hazan said.
Despite the apparent victory, Netanyahu has many hurdles ahead.
The Supreme Court is set next week to begin considering whether an indicted member of parliament can be tasked with forming a new government. Its decision could potentially disqualify Netanyahu from leading the next government. It’s not clear when a ruling would be handed down.
The political uncertainty has led the Trump administration to delay the release of its long-anticipated Mideast peace plan.
The Palestinians have already rejected the plan, saying the administration is hopelessly and unfairly biased toward Israel. They point to Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, to cut off virtually all aid to the Palestinians and to reverse longstanding opposition to Jewish settlements in east Jerusalem and the West Bank, which Israel captured in the 1967 war.
Meanwhile, Netanyahu has said Israel is on the cusp of securing U.S. support for the annexation of large parts of the occupied West Bank — but only if he remains in power.
That would virtually extinguish the Palestinians’ hopes of one day establishing an independent state, but it would cement Netanyahu’s legacy as perhaps the most successful right-wing leader in the country’s history.