Israel’s Netanyahu wins re-election as Likud chief

A4576981.jpgFormer Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu easily won re-election as head of the rightist Likud party and pledged on Wednesday to reclaim Israel’s leadership.A year after Likud was routed in a national election, Netanyahu has rebounded in opinion polls that have shown a steep plunge in the popularity of the current prime minister, Ehud Olmert, who leads the centrist Kadima party.Official results of Tuesday’s Likud balloting gave Netanyahu 75 percent of the vote in a sweeping victory against his main challenger, West Bank settler Moshe Feiglin, who opposes relinquishing Israeli-occupied land to the Palestinians.

“The internal battle ended tonight and tomorrow we will focus our efforts on bringing Israel a new leadership,” Netanyahu, 57, said in a victory speech.

A Netanyahu win was never in doubt in the party he led out of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s government in 2005 in protest over Israel’s withdrawal of troops and settlers from the Gaza Strip that year.

Whether the Likud, Israel’s main opposition party, can claw its way back to power is an open question. The party won only 12 seats in the 120-member parliament in last year’s election, down from 38 in the previous poll.

A general election is not due until 2010. But Olmert has been plagued by a string of corruption scandals and a potentially damaging final report by a government-appointed panel examining the Lebanon war is still pending.

Some political commentators anticipate a face-off at the ballot box as early as next year, with Netanyahu staking a more centrist ground.

Despite the U.S.-educated Netanyahu’s hawkish views, he handed over part of a West Bank town to Palestinian control under pressure from Washington while prime minister from 1996 to 1999.

His star has been rising. He is widely seen in Israel and among financial institutions that deal with the Jewish state as having turned its economy around while pursuing free market policies as Sharon’s finance minister.

Netanyahu’s warnings against pulling out of the Gaza Strip are also regarded by many Israelis as having been prophetic. Hamas Islamists now control the territory and militants frequently fire rockets from Gaza at southern Israel.

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