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Israel's Netanyahu Headed for Victory in Likud Party Election


Israel's main opposition party, the Likud, is holding an election for party leader. As Robert Berger reports from VOA's Jerusalem bureau, one of Israel's most well-known politicians is facing off with an increasingly powerful bloc of Jewish settlers and their supporters.

Israeli opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu is seeking reelection as head of the opposition Likud Party, and pollsters say it should be an easy win. As he cast his ballot, Netanyahu urged the 100,000 members of the Likud to vote.

"We are beginning the campaign for the premiership and to bring a future of hope to our country," he said.

Mr. Netanyahu, a former prime minister, has soared in the polls since the inconclusive war in Lebanon a year ago, while Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's popularity has plunged.

National elections are not due until 2010, but if Mr. Olmert's fragile government collapses, early elections could take place next year.

Mr. Netanyahu is a hawk who supports existing Jewish settlements in the West Bank and opposes a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital. But he wants to appeal to Israelis in the center of the political spectrum, so he has adopted a more moderate approach. He supports peace talks and some territorial concessions on condition that the Palestinians fulfill their commitments to fight terrorism.

That position has put him on a collision course with Moshe Feiglin, a religious settler who is challenging Netanyahu for the party leadership. Feiglin says the Likud has lost its nationalist roots.

"We understand that Israel needs leadership that represents the values of the people of Israel, not the emptiness that the existing leadership represents," said Feiglin.

Feiglin opposes peace talks and any territorial concessions to the Palestinians, and supports expanding Jewish settlement throughout the West Bank, or what he calls the biblical Land of Israel.

While Feiglin does not expect to win, he hopes that a strong showing of perhaps 30 percent of the vote would embarrass Mr. Netanyahu and push the Likud Party further to the right.

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