Benjamin Netanyahu, fresh off a commanding election win as leader of Israel's hardline Likud Party, vowed yesterday to shift his efforts toward reclaiming his old job as prime minister.
Netanyahu faced a relatively strong challenge from Moshe Feiglin, a radical West Bank settler, whose performance in Tuesday's primary could help shore up the extreme right wing of the party and hurt Netanyahu's efforts to rehabilitate Likud after it was battered in national elections last year.
Recent polls have crowned Netanyahu, Likud's leader since late 2005, as the front-runner for Israel's top job.
Netanyahu captured 73 percent of the vote to Feiglin's 23 percent, according to final results party officials released early yesterday. A third candidate, Danny Danon, trailed with 3.5 percent.
Netanyahu's victory was a foregone conclusion after he announced the elections on short notice, eliminating a run by his chief internal rival, former foreign minister Silvan Shalom, who said he didn't have enough time to campaign.
In his victory speech, Netanyahu made it clear that the race was a dress rehearsal for a much bigger contest.
"Tonight the internal contest ended, and as of tomorrow, we will focus our efforts on bringing a new leadership to Israel," Netanyahu told dozens of cheering supporters at the Tel Aviv fairgrounds where Israeli political parties hold their major events.
A telegenic politician and self-described hawk, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology-educated Netanyahu speaks flawless, American English. He's tough on defense issues and hands-off on the economy, but in recent months has been trying to position himself in the political center to try to lure moderate voters.
"It's clear that Netanyahu is a right-wing man, but a right-wing man who is always winking at the center," political commentator Hanan Crystal said on Tuesday.
Feiglin's platform calls for barring Arabs from Israel's parliament, encouraging non-Jews to emigrate and pulling Israel out of the UN. He is viewed as extreme even by many Israeli settlers.
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. Polls show Netanyahu's main rival would be the Labor Party's Ehud Barak, who unseated Netanyahu as prime minister in 1999.
With many Israelis on summer holiday, turnout among the nearly 100,000 Likud members was slightly under 40 percent.
Though Feiglin counted on the support of only 10 percent of Likud's members, he stood to win as much as 30 percent of the vote because of pro-Netanyahu no-shows, Crystal said before the polls closed.
That level of support "would brand the Likud as negative, reactionary, and delusional, which would play into the hands of its political rivals," commentator Yossi Verter wrote on Tuesday in the Haaretz daily.
Security guards barred Feiglin and his supporters from entering the hall where Netanyahu delivered his victory speech. Crystal interpreted this as a sign of what Netanyahu had in store for the party's radical faction now that the primary race was over.
"Whoever doesn't let Feiglin into the hall apparently intends to throw him and his supporters out of the Likud," Crystal said. "Let's see if he succeeds."