Israel PM's Likud party hardens against him

Hardliners within Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud were poised to seize key positions in the party's governing institutions on Sunday in a move likely to curb any concessions vis-a-vis the Palestinians.

The 3,600 members of the Likud Central Committee began voting at 0700 GMT for the leadership of three key institutions which were likely to fall into the hands of activists who firmly oppose the creation of a Palestinian state.

Ballots closed at 1900 GMT with a party spokeswoman noting a 78 percent participation rate. Results were expected early Monday morning.

The vote took place as US Secretary of State John Kerry wrapped up four days of intensive shuttle diplomacy in a bid to bring Israel and the Palestinians back to the negotiating table.

Although Netanyahu will remain party leader, members chose who will preside over the central committee, the Likud bureau, and the secretariat in a vote expected to reveal how much of a threat the premier faces from party rebels.

The main player is Deputy Defence Minister Danny Danon who is likely to be elected chairman of the central committee.

In an initial vote on Tuesday, Danon, 42, took control of the Likud party's conference, a largely symbolic role but one which highlighted the growing power of the rebels.

Danon is so popular within the party that Netanyahu quietly withdrew his candidacy for the role rather than face defeat by his young rival, media reports said.

Two other rebels from the far-right flank also looked likely to win election.

Deputy Foreign Minister Zeev Elkin is set to take over the Likud bureau, which outlines the party's ideology, and Miri Regev is a frontrunner for chairing the secretariat.

Danon, who openly opposes the two-state solution and is one of the most vocal backers of the settlers, admitted he had differences of opinion with Netanyahu over certain issues.

"The prime minister has no rival within Likud but it is legitimate to differ over principles and ideology," Danon told Israeli radio on Sunday.

"There are many who think like me about the idea of the two-state solution," he said.

Danon recently sparked uproar when he said Netanyahu's government was not serious about a Palestinian state and that if it were put to a vote most Likud ministers, as well as other key coalition partners, would oppose it.

Elkin also warned that if Netanyahu were to push ahead with moves to create a Palestinian state, it would create "a deep split within Likud".

Danon echoed his comments and said if Netanyahu agreed to a deal "he would have to win the confidence of both the party and the people through elections or a referendum".

But he said it was unlikely Netanyahu would do such a thing.

"Some people are hoping that Netanyahu will do the work of the left, but that dream won't happen," he said.

Netanyahu, meanwhile, diminished the role Likud's Central Committee could have in decreeing a peace agreement with the Palestinians by replacing their potential support with that of the broad public.

"I think it is necessary that any agreement, if reached, be brought to the people for a decision," he said.

Channel 2 television commentator Amnon Abramovitch said: "Netanyahu thinks that the Likud voters are more important than (the party's) activists and wheeler-dealers."

Likud MPs and party faithful have been increasingly unhappy with Netanyahu in the wake of the disappointing results in January's general election.

Just before the vote, Netanyahu announced the party would run on a joint electoral list with the hardline Yisrael Beitenu of former foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman.

But the joint list, which initially had 42 seats in the 120 seat parliament, suffered a major defeat in January and only managed to secure 31 mandates.