Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday claimed a solid victory over his sole opponent for the leadership of his Likud party, bolstering his position ahead of possible early elections.
Netanyahu, who had been expected to sail to victory in the primary vote, has reportedly taken around 80 percent of the vote, easily beating a challenge from hardline settler Moshe Feiglin.
The result will shore up Netanyahu's position within his own party, commentators said, raising the prospect that general elections scheduled for late 2013 would be moved up, possibly before US presidential elections in November.
Netanyahu announced his victory early on Wednesday morning, before official results were released.
"I thank you for the confidence and the renewed support that you have given me," he told cheering supporters.
Earlier, Netanyahu declared the vote a victory for "the real Likud," an apparent reference to Feiglin's supporters, many of whom registered with Likud to vote in the primary but back more conservative parties in the general elections.
"Today, the real Likud won. We proved that our strength is our unity. We will continue to lead the country in a responsible way... for the good of all Israelis," he said.
Feiglin, a controversial member of Israel's extreme-right, had sought to shake up the primary by translating discontent among Israel's settler movement into punitive votes against Netanyahu.
But while official results had yet to be announced by 0730 GMT on Wednesday, Netanyahu appeared to have won a commanding victory, and Israel's newspapers splashed speculation about an early election across their front pages.
"Netanyahu considering elections in October," the top-selling Yediot Aharonot announced on its front page.
"Victory for Netanyahu, now he contemplates early elections," daily Maariv wrote.
Yediot Aharonot, quoting unnamed associates of Netanyahu, said the premier was considering moving up elections currently expected around November 2013, citing "the desire to hold elections before the US elections, because if (US President Barack) Obama wins another term he could try to harm Netanyahu."
The Israeli leader has clashed with Obama on several occasions as Washington has sought to facilitate peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, and some in Israel fear Obama could be more assertive in pressuring Israel for concessions if he wins a second term later this year.
Netanyahu also finds himself in strong position domestically should he decide to move up the vote, with polls showing him far ahead of his potential competitors for the premiership, and his Likud party outpolling the opposition.
Speculation about a decision to move up elections has been swirling since at least December, when Netanyahu said he would move up the Likud primary vote to January 31.
He denied the decision was linked to early elections, saying it was a bid to save money by holding the vote on the same day as the Likud party convention.