Israeli Premier Benjamin Netanyahu wins Likud party primary ahead of March general election



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JERUSALEM — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu won the backing of his hard-line Likud party in its primary and will lead it into general elections this March, Israeli media reported Thursday.

With most of the ballots cast Wednesday counted, Israeli media said Netanyahu had won the support of about 75 percent of electors, giving him an unassailable lead over challenger Danny Danon, a former deputy defense minister.

Some 100,000 Likud members were eligible to vote in the poll. Netanyahu was the heavily favored candidate.

While many familiar faces from the party are expected to return to the Knesset, others who served in the last legislature did not garner enough votes to come back, among them two hard-liners.

Moshe Feiglin, who supports greater Jewish access to prayer at a Jerusalem holy site that has been a flashpoint for violence, and Tzipi Hotovely, who opposes the creation of a Palestinian state, did not place high enough.

Early opinion polls ahead of the March 17 general elections show Netanyahu's Likud party in a neck-and-neck race with a joint list headed by Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog and former Justice Minister Tzipi Livni of the Hatnuah party.

Netanyahu has been Israeli prime minister since 2009, and has taken a hard-line in relations with the Palestinians. He has cultivated members of his right-wing coalition through supporting contentious legislation that would enshrine into law Israel's status as a Jewish state.

But he has so far drawn a line with the right at efforts to change the status at a disputed Jerusalem holy site by allowing Jews to pray there, fearing that such a change would solidify anti-Israeli opinion in the Islamic world and undermine the country's relations with the United States and Europe.

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