The result further solidified Netanyahu’s already firm political base. He heads a stable coalition, dominated by rightist parties, that controls 66 seats in the 120-member parliament.
In a short victory speech, Netanyahu said Likud is “committed to settlement in the Land of Israel,” a nod to a growing constituency of settlers and their supporters in the party ranks.
Israeli media reports, citing unnamed Likud ministers, said Netanyahu was contemplating elections in October, a year ahead of schedule, to preempt what is expected to be a difficult battle with coalition partners over passage of the national budget.
An October vote would give opposition parties less time to organize. It would also precede the possible reelection in November of President Obama, who Likud ministers believe might take a more confrontational approach with Israel in a second term, hurting Netanyahu at the polls if the vote was held later, according to the reports.
Netanyahu also faces a possible decision this year on whether to launch a military strike on nuclear facilities in Iran, which Israel says is working to build an atomic bomb, and he would benefit from a renewed mandate for leadership.
“We face great challenges that no other country in the world faces, and I’m convinced and believe that we can overcome them together in our way, the way of the Likud,” Netanyahu said in his victory speech.
Still, some analysts said there is little evidence that members of Netanyahu’s coalition are seeking early elections or that there is much of an appetite for a vote among opposition parties, which are facing internal power struggles and are unprepared for an election campaign.
“Politicians don’t take unnecessary risks and always try to gain time,” said Itzhak Galnoor, a political scientist at Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Netanyahu, he said, had used the primary as “a dry run to smoke out his adversaries, who have already begun competing with one another.”
A leadership fight has begun in recent weeks in the main opposition party, Kadima, with Shaul Mofaz, a former army chief and defense minister, challenging party leader Tzipi Livni.
Before the Likud primary, Netanyahu’s government took two steps that appear calculated to appeal to his supporters in the settlements.
It approved new housing subsidies and loans for people who move to more than 500 communities in designated “national priority areas,” including 70 West Bank settlements.
The government also appointed a committee to study the status of scores of unauthorized settlement outposts in the West Bank, some of which were built on private Palestinian land.
The makeup of the panel, and its mandate to review a scathing official report in 2005 that exposed extensive state support for the outposts, has raised the prospect that the committee could legalize some of them.