Netanyahu Expected to Win Primary Vote
Aug 14, 2:57 PM (ET)
By LAURIE COPANS
JERUSALEM (AP) - Benjamin Netanyahu appeared assured of victory late Tuesday in the race to lead the right-of-center Likud Party, a win that would boost his ambitions to reclaim the prime minister's office.
Netanyahu, crowned in recent polls as the front-runner for Israel's top job, faced off against West Bank settler Moshe Feiglin, who would bar Arabs from Israel's parliament and favors their emigration. A strong Feiglin showing could shore up Israel's extreme right and hurt Netanyahu's efforts to rehabilitate the Likud after it was trounced in elections last year.
A telegenic politician and professed hawk, the M.I.T.-educated Netanyahu speaks flawless, American-accented English. He's tough on defense issues and hands-off on the economy, and in recent months has been trying to position himself somewhere in the political center.
"I call on Likud members to go vote because tonight, when we close the polls, we begin the race for prime minister," Netanyahu, who has led Likud since late 2005, said as he voted in Jerusalem.
Israeli general elections are scheduled for 2010, but could be earlier if Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's fractious coalition government falls apart, or if Olmert himself - facing low poll numbers and a series of legal woes - leaves office.
With many Israelis on summer holiday, turnout among the nearly 100,000 Likud members was likely to be under 40 percent, something that would work against Netanyahu, political analyst Hanan Crystal said.
Though Feiglin counts on the support of only 10 percent of Likud's members, he stands to win as much as 30 percent of Tuesday's vote because of Netanyahu no-shows, Crystal said.
Even many settlers view Feiglin, who would pull Israel out of the United Nations, as extreme. A strong showing by the far-right challenger could brand Likud as an extremist party and hurt Netanyahu's efforts to lure centrist voters in a future national election.
"It's clear that Netanyahu is a right-wing man, but a right-wing man who is always winking at the center," Crystal said.
If Feiglin wins 30 percent of the Likud votes, "it would brand the Likud as negative, reactionary, and delusional, which would play into the hands of its political rivals," commentator Yossi Verter wrote Tuesday in the daily Haaretz.
In an effort to encourage Likud members to vote, Netanyahu, who currently serves as party leader, extended the polling into the night and stationed ballot boxes at hotels around the country.
Likud dominated Israeli politics for nearly three decades until 2005, when party leader Ariel Sharon bolted to form a new centrist movement, Kadima, taking top Likud legislators with him. Sharon was incapacitated by a stroke in early 2006 and replaced by Olmert, another former Likud politician who led Kadima to victory in elections several months later.
Likud fell apart in that vote, shrinking to 12 seats in Israel's 120-seat parliament from 38 in the previous elections in 2003.
But Netanyahu's hawkish policies appear to have gained renewed popularity with an Israeli public frustrated by ongoing rocket fire from the Gaza Strip and angry over the country's inconclusive war against Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon last summer.
Netanyahu was a vocal opponent of Israeli-Palestinian peace deals in the early 1990s, but later, as prime minister from 1996 to 1999, he negotiated two interim peace deals and handed over most of the West Bank town of Hebron to the Palestinian Authority.
Still, his relations with the Palestinians were acrimonious and his ties with the Clinton administration, which wanted to see more Israeli flexibility, were often strained. His shaky coalition government fell apart in 1999, and he was unseated by Labor's Ehud Barak in elections that year.
After his defeat, he resigned as Likud's chairman and left politics for three years before returning as foreign minister and finance minister under Sharon. He quit the Cabinet two weeks before Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip to protest the pullout, taking Likud into the opposition.