Israel PM Benjamin Netanyahu faces party vote ahead of snap elections

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and his wife Sara (just seen, far right) cast their ballots for the Likud primary at a polling station in Jerusalem Dec 31, 2014.  -- PHOTO: REUTERS
Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and his wife Sara (just seen, far right) cast their ballots for the Likud primary at a polling station in Jerusalem Dec 31, 2014.  -- PHOTO: REUTERS

JERUSALEM (AFP) - Members of Israel's ruling right-wing Likud voted Wednesday for their party leader, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seeking another term at the helm ahead of early elections in March.

The primary, in which 96,651 members were eligible to vote, was the first electoral hurdle for Netanyahu, who is hoping to secure a third consecutive term in office.

Voting ended at 10pm (4am on Thursday Singapore time), with turnout at more than 53 per cent, official figures showed.

Final results are due early on Thursday.

Political analysts say Netanyahu is expected to win the vote in the face of a single challenger, Danny Danon, a former deputy defence minister and outspoken member of Likud party's far-right fringe.

Members also voted to determine the frontrunners on the party list for the March 17 general election.

Casting his ballot at a polling station in Jerusalem, Netanyahu said the party must unify in the face of threats from the left.

"It is important at the end of the day that there be one strong Likud against the left in order to lead the state of Israel safely," he said in remarks broadcast on army radio.

The party last held a primary in January 2012, when members voted out three leading moderates, heralding a shift to the right likely to be further cemented in Wednesday's ballot.

"Voters will be determining not only the face of Likud but its ideological agenda in the years to come," wrote Yuval Karni in the Yediot Aharonot newspaper, which holds an anti-Netanyahu stance.

"While the result of the primary is a foregone conclusion - Netanyahu is expected to easily defeat his sole rival Danny Danon - the big question is what will the list look like."

Polls suggest Likud is likely to face a challenge in March from a centre-left alliance of the opposition Labour party and the centrist HaTnuah of former justice minister Tzipi Livni.

'FIGHTING FOR SURVIVAL'

Commentator Yoaz Hendel said Likud was a party "fighting for survival" with little to offer in terms of dynamic leaders likely to garner votes.

"Today's Likud has no new, youthful, charismatic energy, and there is also no range of opinions," he wrote in Yediot.

"When Likud loses the ability to present itself as a rightwing, liberal, pragmatic party, it also loses its ability to govern. It loses its ability to attract voters from the centre."

In the centre-right Maariv newspaper, Arik Bender said Likud officials were concerned that the party list would lack any fresh faces and end up being "too extremist" for voters.

General elections had been due in late 2017, but the polls were brought forward by Netanyahu in early December after the collapse of his fractious coalition.

The hawkish premier has been in office since 2009, following a first term in 1996-1999.

Tamir Sheafer, a political science expert from Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said it was unlikely the primary would herald any major changes.

"We will most likely merely see a variation of the current list," he told AFP.

He said it was unlikely that the composition of the list would have a major impact on voting patterns for Likud in the upcoming election, or on the likely makeup of the next coalition government.

"The composition of a party is... less relevant than what people think," he said. "People ultimately vote either for the party's name or the party's leader."

Seventy candidates were vying for places on the party list, with all 18 of its lawmakers running for re-election except outgoing Culture and Sport Minister Limor Livnat, who is retiring from politics.