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Israel's Netanyahu wins ruling party leadership primary

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Jerusalem (AFP)

Embattled Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu won a leadership primary in his right-wing Likud party Friday, ensuring he will lead it into March elections.

Israel's longest-serving premier, who faces a corruption indictment and a third general election in twelve months, was expected to beat rival Gideon Saar but a close result could have weakened his influence over the party he has dominated for 20 years.

"A huge win! Thank you to Likud members for their trust, support and love," Netanyahu tweeted an hour after polls closed.

Initial results showed Netanyahu had won a comfortable victory over Saar, though a final tally was expected to take several hours.

An unofficial exit poll gave him 71 percent of the vote and Saar 29 percent.

"With God's and your help, I will lead Likud to a big victory in the upcoming elections and we will continue to lead the State of Israel to unprecedented achievements," Netanyahu added.

Around 57,000 Likud members cast their ballots across the country throughout Thursday, a little less than 50 percent of those eligible.

Saar, a former minister seen as to the right of Netanyahu, conceded early Friday.

"I am content with my decision to have stood. Those who are unwilling to take a risk for what they believe in will never succeed," Saar tweeted.

"My colleagues and I will stand behind (Netanyahu) in campaigning for the Likud's success in the general elections," he added.

Saar announced his leadership challenge last month after Israel's attorney general indicted Netanyahu for fraud, bribery and breach of trust.

Netanyahu, 70, denies the allegations.

- 'Job on line' -

He will now remain Prime Minister until new elections in March.

Likud and the centrist Blue and White were near neck-and-neck after polls in March and September, with neither able to form a coalition in the country's proportional parliament.

Netanyahu's downfall has been predicted multiple times since he became premier for a second time in 2009, but he has defied expectations and appears determined to fight on.

Stephan Miller, a pollster who has worked on multiple Israeli campaigns, said Netanyahu had campaigned harder than ever before to defeat Saar.

"His job was on the line and he fought to keep it successfully," he said.

Gayil Talshir, a professor of politics at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, said the result could embolden Netanyahu in his campaign against the indictment.

Netanyahu has consistently accused the police, prosecutors and the media of a witchhunt.

Under Israeli law, a prime minister is only forced to step down once convicted with all appeals exhausted.

"He is going to argue that the people chose him and not the mechanisms and the judiciary," Talshir said.

She said he would again seek to win a majority in March's election with a view to potentially passing a law that would give him immunity from prosecution.

"The big game for Netanyahu is immunity and for that he needs 61 votes (in the 120-seat parliament)," she said.

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