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Netanyahu Claims 'Huge Win' in Likud Leadership Race


FILE - A combination picture shows Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, Nov. 17, 2019, and Likud party member Gideon Saar in Brussels, Nov. 16, 2010.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu scored what he calls "huge win" in Thursday's primary election for the leadership of his ruling Likud Party.

Official results show Netanyahu winning 72% of the votes cast by eligible Likud members while his challenger, former Interior and Education Minister Gideon Saar, winning 28%.

Voter turnout, however, was less than 50%, with bad weather keeping many people away from the polls.

The win ensures that Netanyahu will, for now, continue as leader of the right-wing Likud party and will be its candidate in the March general election.

"Thank you to Likud members for their trust, support, and love," Netanyahu tweeted. "I will lead the Likud to a big win in the upcoming elections and we will continue to lead the State of Israel to incredible achievements."

Saar congratulated Netanyahu and said he will support the prime minister in the upcoming election. He did not seem to regret losing by a huge landslide.

"I am absolutely comfortable with my decision to run. Whoever isn't ready to take a risk for a path he believes in will never win," Saar said.

Embattled, but still popular

Israeli analysts said many Likud members were tired of Netanyahu, who has been prime minister for 10 years. But they said he was still popular overall within the party and was expected to prevail over a tough challenge from Saar.

Netanyahu has been fighting for his political life for nearly a year. Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit indicted him last month for alleged corruption, including fraud, bribery and breach of trust. Netanyahu is accused of accepting luxurious gifts and favorable newspaper coverage in exchange for political favors. He denies the charges and accuses the Israeli media and judiciary of trying to get rid of him.

Netanyahu also faces the third general election in less than a year in March. Two previous contests against former Defense Minister Benny Gantz were inconclusive. Neither was able to win enough support in parliament to be able to form a government.

The Israeli Supreme Court is expected to decide next week whether an indicted member of parliament would be allowed to name a Cabinet.

Linda Gradstein in Jerusalem contributed to this report.