Likud primaries see low voter turnout, with only 14% by mid-day
Netanyahu is expected to easily beat his challenger, extreme rightist Feiglin, but nevertheless will deliver a surprise speech in the evening to encourage eligible voters.
Turnout for the Likud party's primary elections was unusually low on Tuesday. By mid-afternoon, only 14 percent of eligible voters had cast their ballot to elect a new party leader and central committee.
Approximately 4,500 people had voted by early afternoon. Many of the polling stations themselves had opened later than 10 A.M., as planned, due to the tardiness of the human resources personnel overseeing the voting.
The party's current leader, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, was expected to win easily against his only challenger, extreme rightist Moshe Feiglin. If he indeed secures the chairmanship, this will be Netanyahu's fifth time be elected to the post since 1993.
In the previous Likud leadership primary in August 2007, Netanyahu beat Feiglin by 73.2 per cent to 23.4 per cent.
After casting his own vote, Netanyahu issued a call out Likud members to "come and vote for me, I know most of you support me."
"If people stay home, there will be no way to express this great support, and the way that I lead the Likud, which has garnered such support among the members of Knesset and the ministers. The more voters that turn out, the clearer it will be how great the support is for me," he said.
By early Tuesday afternoon, as turnout remained low, it was announced that Netanyahu would deliver a surprise address at the Tel Aviv fairgrounds, apparently in effort to draw more voters to the polls.
Some 125.000 Likud members are eligible to vote, in more than 150 countrywide polling stations. Polls will close at 10 P.M, but results are not expected until early Wednesday.
Members of Feiglin's camp issued a complaint within the first hour after polls opened, claiming of disruptions in various stations in the West Bank settlements. According to the complaints, stations in Beit El, Efrat, Otniel and Gush Etzion – towns where Feiglin was expected to win by a significant margin – did not receive their voters' guides and those who turned up at the polls were sent home. The Likud has not yet responded to the complaints.
National elections are not due until late 2013, and Netanyahu's decision to hold the Likud primaries now has raised speculation that he intends to call a national vote closer to the time of the U.S. presidential election late this year.
Political commentators say a Likud victory in a parliamentary poll held before or shortly after the U.S. vote in November would leave Netanyahu better placed to deal with Barack Obama, with whom he has had a frosty relationship, if the Democrat is re-elected.
Many Israelis worry that Obama, in a second term, may exert greater pressure on Israel to yield land for peace with the Palestinians, which could upset Netanyahu's clout in his pro-settler party and its core conservative electorate.
His coalition government of right-wing and religious parties has shown few cracks and opinion polls show that Likud would emerge on top if a parliamentary election were held now.
In the Likud leadership poll, Netanyahu's only challenger is a far-right settler who has no chance of unseating him.
"It's a done deal," Danny Danon, one of the Likud's most prominent legislators, said about the primaries.
"There is no tension or competition. Our main battle is with Kadima," he said, referring to the centrist, main opposition party led by former foreign minister Tzipi Livni.
Danon said he saw a possibility of Israel holding the general election later this year. While Netanyahu has not said he wanted an early poll, "he prefers to lead and not be dragged there", Danon told Reuters.
Netanyahu's opponent in the Likud race is Moshe Feiglin, 49, who lost a party contest to him in 2007 but hopes to win more than the 24 percent of the vote he polled then.
Results of Tuesday's poll are expected to be announced by early on Wednesday.
"I want to return the Likud to its real path," Feiglin told Reuters. Feiglin opposes Netanyahu's embrace the goal of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
U.S.-sponsored peace talks stalled shortly after they began in 2010 in a dispute over settlement building in the occupied West Bank.
Feiglin applauded U.S. Republican presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich for recently calling the Palestinians an "invented people" and thought Israel should pay Palestinians living in West Bank land they seek for a state to leave.
"They don't deserve a state, certainly not in land that God promised the Jews," Feiglin said.
Though Feiglin's views mirror those of many pro-settler lawmakers in Likud, he is supported by few in the party's mainstream.
But political analyst Jonathan Rhynold of Bar-Ilan University said Netanyahu had reason to be wary of Feiglin.
"The Israeli public is not where Feiglin is. Any rise in Feiglin's influence in the party can hurt Netanyahu," he said.
The Likud poll will be followed by a Kadima primary election on March 27. Both Kadima and the left-of-centre Labour party have been actively recruiting popular figures, and some influential wild cards, such as former journalist Yair Lapid, have thrown their hats into the electoral ring as well.