Mr. Netanyahu, finding himself in a precarious position domestically for taking steps toward peace with the Palestinians, sought to postpone Likud party elections for another two years in a ballot today of the party's Central Committee.
His challengers, however – chief among them party firebrand Moshe Feiglin, a religious nationalist – were pushing for party elections within a few months.
High turnout favors Netanyahu
At least 80 percent of the committee's more than 2,500 members came out for a crucial ballot – a high turnout that favored Netanyahu. Despite the fact that some 600 of the members support Feiglin, nearly 76 percent voted with Netanyahu to postpone the election.
Had Mr. Feiglin won his bid to hold party elections soon, analysts say, he would have tried to shake Netanyahu from his position as party chairman.
Feiglin, who has sometimes espoused views that others in his own party have deemed radical, has been using the current controversy over Israeli building in East Jerusalem to accuse Netanyahu of backing down in the face of American and Palestinian pressure.
"Netanyahu is planning a disengagement from Jerusalem," Feiglin told supporters yesterday. His reference was to the apparent halt to new Israeli building projects in East Jerusalem. Although Netanyahu has stopped short of agreeing to an official freeze as requested by the Obama administration, it became apparent this week that a de facto halt has already been implemented.
"Disengagement" is itself almost a dirty word in the right-wing religious circles that might vote for Feiglin, as it conjures memories of the unpopular disengagement, or withdrawal, from Gaza in 2005.
"Netanyahu wants to give them your Jerusalem," Feiglin yelled out before television cameras following him on Thursday. "Don't let it happen."
Netanyahu's position had also become more tenuous as he moved toward indirect, US-mediated "proximity talks" with the Palestinians. He appealed on Thursday to his party – which has fractured in recent years following Ariel Sharon's defection from Likud and the creation of the centrist Kadima – to understand that now would be an inopportune time for a party shakeup.
"We are for the state and for the IDF [Israel Defense Forces] and for true peace, and that is what we have to focus on,” Netanyahu said. “If the vote does not go as I want it to, we will have to dedicate months to an internal process in the Likud, and now is not the time to do that.”
Likud challenge adds to other pressure from the right
Shmuel Sandler, a professor specializing in party politics at Bar Ilan University, said the intraparty challenge was evidence of Netanyahu's difficulties in declaring a freeze on building in East Jerusalem, which Palestinians see as the capital of their future state.
"Netanyahu is not in a comfortable position domestically," says Professor Sandler. "He has other right-wing parties pushing against him, and then he has this ongoing pressure from within his own party."
Yossi Verter, a columnist for the Haaretz newspaper, predicted that Netanyahu's win would secure his power in the Likud and strengthen his credentials as a moderate pragmatist in comparison with Feiglin.
"Despite Feiglin, Netanyahu recognized the right of the Palestinians to a state, has frozen construction in the territories, and almost didn't build in Jerusalem during the past year – and nothing happened," Verter wrote Thursday. "The Likud is stable and he [Netanyahu] is indispensable to Likud."