Jewish Home leader Education Minister Naftali Bennett sailed to an easy win in Thursday’s party leadership primary, taking over 80 percent of the total votes cast in the race to head the nationalist party.
Turnout was low amid expectations that Bennett would win, with just 15,701 votes cast, or slightly over half of the total of 30,734 eligible voters.
But it was enough to give Bennett 12,600 votes, or 80.3% of the total.
“Today we have laid the cornerstone on the way to leading the country,” Bennett said after the results were announced late Thursday.
Yonatan Branski, a former IDF colonel with an illustrious military career spanning over 25 years, got 1,916 votes, or 12.2%.
Rabbi Yizhak Zagha, who heads the Spirit of Jerusalem educational organization, came in third, taking just 1,074 votes, or 7.47%.
Both Branski and Zagha had positioned themselves to Bennett’s right, with Branski arguing that the Jewish Home party had drifted away from the community’s core religious-nationalist values under Bennett’s efforts to expand its appeal to centrist and non-religious voters.
Zagha had sought to instill the party with his own nationalist-religious vision, which includes educating Palestinians to support Israel by censoring part of the Koran.
In a move seen by some as an attempt to shore up his position within the party before a potential general election, Bennett in March called early primaries, giving challengers less that two months to mount a campaign against him.
Though new general elections are officially only expected in 2019, a number of parties have indicated they are preparing for the possibility they will take place within the next year as a result of two investigations into Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s financial dealings that could theoretically see him forced from power.
The race took place at 69 polling stations across the country, starting at 2 p.m. and closing at 11 p.m.
While Bennett first won the leadership of the party in 2012 as an upstart with little legislative experience, challenging some of the long-established figures within the religious-Zionist community, he now has four years of cabinet experience under his belt and is seen by many as part of the establishment.
Bennett was seen by many as the great white hope of the pro-settlement, religious right when he led the party in the 2013 general election to 12 Knesset seats, the most it had ever won.
But in 2015, as right-wing voters flocked to the more centrist Likud, the party dropped to just eight seats. Recent polls give Jewish Home around 10 seats, an improvement over the last general elections but still far from the original promise many saw in Bennett.
Thursday’s results will likely be seen as granting Bennett a renewed mandate, bolstering his clout both within the party and in the broader ruling coalition, and strengthening his call to annex large parts of the West Bank.