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Israel's embattled Netanyahu declares victory in ruling party leadership primary

Challenger Saar has said Likud is unlikely to regain power in 2 March election unless Netanyahu steps aside
Israel's attorney general has indicted Netanyahu on charges of fraud, bribery and breach of trust, which he denies (AFP)

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

"A huge win! Thank you to Likud members for their trust, support and love," Netanyahu, 70, tweeted an hour after polls closed, AFP reported. He will now remain prime minister until the new elections - Israel's third in 12 months.

Reuters said an exit poll cited by the political correspondent for Israel's Channel 12 news predicted that Netanyahu would retain Likud leadership with almost 72 percent of votes, comfortably beating rival Gideon Saar, though a final tally was expected to take several hours.

"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.

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About 49 percent of the 116,048 eligible Likud members turned out for Thursday's vote, the party said. Stormy weather kept others home.

Saar, a former minister seen as being to the right of Netanyahu, also tweeted after polls closed, thanking his supporters, volunteers and voters.

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

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

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.

Though the troubles of "King Bibi", as he is nicknamed by his fans, do not seem to have dented the loyalty Netanyahu commands among his supporters, some Likud members have said it is time for fresh leadership.

Saar, a former education and interior minister and a popular member of Likud, has said that the party is unlikely to regain power in the 2 March election unless Netanyahu steps aside.

Netanyahu has dismissed Saar's challenge, talking up his security credentials and international prowess.

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