Israeli PM faces leadership vote ahead of snap polls

Israel's ruling Likud began voting Wednesday for their party leader

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Members of Israel's ruling Likud began voting Wednesday for their party leader with rightwing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seeking another term at the helm ahead of snap elections in March.

The primary, in which 96,651 members are eligible to vote, is the first electoral hurdle for Netanyahu who is hoping to secure a third consecutive term in office.

Political analysts say Netanyahu is expected to win the party vote in the face of just one challenge from Danny Danon, a former deputy defence minister and outspoken member of the party's far-right fringe.

Members are also voting to determine the frontrunners on the party list for the March 17 general election.

The primary polls opened at 9:00 am (0700 GMT) with voters casting their ballots at 115 locations across Israel and settlements in the occupied West Bank and annexed east Jerusalem.

Polling stations will close at 10:00pm with the results due early on Thursday.

There are 70 candidates vying for places on the party list, with all 18 of its lawmakers running for re-election except outgoing Culture and Sport Minister Limor Livnat who is retiring from political life.

The last time the party held a primary was in January 2012 when members voted out three leading moderates, heralding a notable shift to the right which is likely to be further cemented in Wednesday's ballot.

Recent polls suggest Likud is likely to face a challenge in the March election from a centre-left alliance of the opposition Labour party and the centrist HaTnuah of former justice minister Tzipi Livni.

General elections had been scheduled to take place in late 2017, but the vote was brought forward by Netanyahu in early December after the collapse of his fractious coalition.

The hawkish premier has been in office since 2009, following a first term in 1996-1999.