Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a meeting of the right-wing bloc at the Knesset (Israeli parliament) in Jerusalem on November 20, 2019.
Netanyahu wins Likud party leadership race in a landslide
01:50 - Source: CNN
Jerusalem CNN  — 

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will retain leadership of Likud, the political party he has led for more than a decade, after a resounding victory over his challenger.

An hour after polls closed Thursday night, Netanyahu tweeted, “Huge victory! I thank the Likud members for the trust, the support and the love. With god’s help and with your help, I will lead the Likud to a great victory in the coming (March) election and we’ll continue leading the state of Israel to unprecedented achievements.”

Despite facing criminal indictment on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust, as well as failing to form a government after elections in April and September, Netanyahu was the favorite against hardline right-wing politician Gideon Sa’ar.

Sa’ar conceded, tweeting, “Congratulations to the Prime Minister on his victory in the primaries. My colleagues and I will stand behind him in campaigning for the Likud’s success in the general elections. This contest was immensely important to the Likud and its democratic character.”

Netanyahu garnered 72.5% of the vote, according to results published by Likud. Sa’ar polled 27.5%. Turnout among the 116,000 Likud members was about 50%.

Sa’ar, a former minister of education, had promised to to break Israel’s political deadlock and lead Likud to victory in March.

Netanyahu, 70, faces criminal indictment in three separate corruption investigations. The embattled leader has insisted he is innocent, calling the investigations an “attempted coup.”

Tough competition

Netanyahu, the longest-serving leader in Israel’s history, was the favorite in the party contest, campaigning on his accomplishments after years of leadership and the institutional loyalty of a party known for its dedication to its leader.

But ever the cautious politician, Netanyahu wasn’t taking anything for granted.

In an effort to energize his base, Netanyahu continued his us-versus-them tone, tweeting to his supporters: “They won’t decide for us. Only we will decide who will lead the Likud and the country. A big victory for me in the primaries will secure a huge Likud victory in the Knesset elections.”

Netanyahu had not faced a serious challenge to his leadership of the Likud in more than a decade.

He has garnered more than 70% of the vote in every leadership race since 2007. Thursday’s victory ensured Netanyahu’s control of the Likud and his leadership of Israel’s right wing.

Rockets during rally

In an effort to ensure support from the party’s pro-settlement base, Netanyahu promised he would secure another major political gift from US President Donald Trump, who has already recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, moved the embassy, and recognized Israeli sovereignty in the Golan Heights.

“We are going to bring American recognition of Israeli sovereignty in the Jordan Valley – and pay attention – in all of the settlements – those in the blocs and those that are not,” Netanyahu promised in a video message on Tuesday evening.

An Israeli election billboard for the Likud party in September showed US President Donald Trump shaking hands with  Netanyahu.

“That’s the next step. It’s in our hands. And only I will bring this.”

The statement goes even further than Netanyahu’s promise before the last elections in September, in which he vowed he would annex the Jordan Valley if he won the election.

When he failed to form a government for the second consecutive time, mirroring his failure after the April elections, Netanyahu was unable to act on his campaign promise.

CNN has reached out to the US State Department for comment. The White House referred CNN to the National Security Council, which declined to comment.

One day before the vote, while holding a campaign rally in Ashkelon Wednesday evening, Netanyahu had to be taken off stage as Gaza militants fired a rocket toward the southern Israeli city.

The rocket was intercepted by the Iron Dome aerial defense system.

A virtually identical situation occurred before the elections in September. Netanyahu was holding a campaign rally in the city of Ashdod, a few miles north of the city of Ashkelon.

Rockets were fired from Gaza into Israel, forcing security to escort Netanyahu off the stage. He returned a short time later to finish his speech.

CNN’s Amir Tal contributed to this report.