JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been voted in as head of the right-wing Likud party, overcoming his first hurdle toward winning a fourth term in office in a March general election, results of a party primary published on Thursday showed.
Israeli opinion polls put Likud slightly behind left-of-center Labor, giving the parliamentary contest a taste of unpredictability, but surveys still give Netanyahu the largest number of potential allies with whom to form a governing coalition, making his re-election seem more likely, for now.
Likud officials were still counting the votes from Wednesday's primary election, but Netanyahu's sole contender, former defense minister and far-right lawmaker Danny Danon, conceded defeat soon after balloting ended, essentially making Netanyahu the winner.
"Based on the results we see now, Prime Minister Netanyahu has won the election. I congratulate the prime minister," Danon said in a videotaped statement broadcast by Israeli media web sites. "We shall work together as a united party for victory in the coming elections."
More than half of some 96,000 eligible voters cast ballots at 600 polling booths across Israel and occupied territory. Party members also chose a slate of parliamentary candidates, but those votes were still being counted, with results not expected to be announced until later on Thursday.
Whether or not Netanyahu secures key slots on the list for his own political allies may influence his electability in March, pundits say.
An opinion poll published on Channel 10 television on Wednesday showed Netanyahu's Likud trailing by two parliamentary seats behind Labor led by Isaac Herzog, but also predicted other right-wing and religious parties more likely to team up with Netanyahu winning a larger majority than Labor's allies.
Most surveys published in the past month have shown similar results. Some analysts see Netanyahu as potentially vulnerable to defeat if centrist parties focusing on hot button economic issues wind up swaying more voters over the next three months.
In past elections, Israelis have focused more on foreign and defense issues which may still prove decisive should there be an uptick in violence with Palestinians or other Arab neighbors before the election. Netanyahu is widely seen as having an edge over his competitors on foreign policy matters.
Netanyahu, 65, is serving his third term of office, but his second consecutive term, after being elected in 2009 and again in 2013. His first term was in 1996, lasting through 1999.
(Writing by Allyn Fisher-Ilan; editing by Gunna Dickson)