Benjamin Netanyahu is poised to win a leadership election in Israel’s rightist Likud party, according to an exit poll. The former prime minister took 47 percent of the vote with his closest rival, foreign minister Silvan Shalom, recording 32 percent. Netanyahu, who as Sharon’s finance minister won market praise for spending cuts and reforms that helped lift Israel out of recession, quit the cabinet in protest against a Gaza pullout completed in September.
He has vowed to take a hard line against further territorial withdrawals from land the Palestinians want for a future state. The ballot is taking place to choose a new leader after Prime Minister Ariel Sharon stepped down to head a new centrist party. His departure has left Likud battling for third place in opinion polls behind Sharon’s Kadima party and the left-wing Labour party ahead of the general election in March.