Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has claimed victory in the race for leadership of the Likud party.

Mr Netanyahu made the declaration on social media just over an hour after polls closed.

He wrote: “A giant victory! Thanks to the members of Likud for the trust, support and love.

“God willing, I will lead Likud to a big victory in the coming elections and will continue to lead the state of Israel to unprecedented achievements.”

Israeli TV reported Mr Netanyahu had won between 70% and 80% of the vote, a convincing margin over veteran party member Gideon Saar.

Gideon Saar (C), Israeli Member of Knesset for Likud, accompanied by his wife Geula Even Saar (L), leave a polling station after casting his ballot during a primary election vote to elect the party chairman, in the coastal city of Tel Aviv, on December 26, 2019
Image: Gideon Saar, pictured with his wife Geula Even Saar, had been confident earlier in the day

The vote comes as Mr Netanyahu battles corruption charges.

The 70-year-old, who has been prime minister since 2009, is accused of bribery, fraud and breach of trust.

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Prosecutors allege he traded legislative or regulatory favours for gifts or favourable media coverage, allegations he denies.

But despite his indictment, Mr Netanyahu remains popular among members of Likud, which has had only four leaders since it began in the 1970s.

The winner of Thursday’s poll will lead the party into the national election in March, Israel’s third in less than a year.

Earlier, his challenger Mr Saar had been confident, telling reporters: “We can win today, to set forth on a new path that will allow us to form a strong and stable government, that will allow us to unite the people of Israel, which is probably the most important thing right now.”

Just under half of the 116,000 eligible voters cast ballots and official results are expected later on Friday.