The Likud central committee voted by a large margin Thursday night in favor of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s proposal to advance the party’s leadership race from mid-2013 to January 31, 2012.

Speaking to the central committee following the vote at the Tel Aviv Fairgrounds, the prime minister thanked them for their support. He hinted that even though the Likud primary will be moved up, he still wants the next general election to be held on time in 2013.

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Netanyahu’s main Likud rival, Vice Premier Silvan Shalom, noticeably absented himself from the event. While Shalom has not said publicly that he would not be running in the primary, he did tell central committee members close to him that he would sit out the primary, because Netanyahu did not give enough time for a fair race.

The only candidate that has announced that he will challenge Netanyahu is Likud activist Moshe Feiglin. He called Netanyahu’s decision to advance the race by a year and a half “not exactly democracy at its best,” but said he would run anyway “in order to keep the Likud on its true path.”

Feiglin called upon Netanyahu to keep the race fair and “not allow it to turn into a farce” like past races in the party. He said there had to be observers at polling stations for the results to be legitimate.

Blasting Netanyahu for giving too much power to Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Feiglin asked the crowd: “Do any of you remember a leftwing government appointing a defense minister from Likud? Why do people who voted for a right-wing government get a defense minister who fights against settling the land? Why can’t we get a defense minister who is loyal to the Land of Israel?” Besides the leadership race, more than 100,000 Likud members will also vote on January 31 to elect a new central committee for the first time in nearly a decade.

Central committee members were expected to vote by secret ballot Thursday night in favor of Netanyahu’s proposal for a 33 percent increase in the number of central committee members from cities and among the founders of the party. Results of the vote were not available by press time.

The prime minister advanced the proposal in order to dilute the power of Likud members from Judea and Samaria, who Netanyahu believes are over-represented on the influential committee.

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