TEL AVIV, Israel -- Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's former ambassador to the United Nations and a familiar figure on U.S. television, emerged yesterday as the front-runner to take over the leadership of the Likud bloc.
Mr. Netanyahu, 43, deputy prime minister in the former government of Yitzhak Shamir, won support from 77 percent of Likud's 3,500-member central committee to have an internal party election to choose its new chairman -- and its candidate for prime minister in the next national election, by 1996.
A second Netanyahu proposal, approved by 85 percent of committee members, requires the winner to get only 40 percent of votes cast for the chairmanship, rather than more than half, to avoid a runoff -- a measure seen as aimed at ensuring his selection as party chairman in March.
As part of the changes, the Likud leader will be chosen directly by the right-wing party's 100,000-plus members, not by power brokers in the central committee.
A Gallup opinion poll this month showed Mr. Netanyahu favored by 67.5 percent of all voters to lead Likud; former Foreign Minister David Levy was next, favored by 6.6 percent.
"I see in this a personal expression of trust," Mr. Netanyahu said as the votes were tallied. "I thought I was a minority opinion in the party. . . . I am very happy, and before me stands four months of campaigning to assure my victory in the elections for Likud chairman."
Counterproposals by Zeev Benyamin Begin, 49, son of the late Prime Minister Menachem Begin and considered Mr. Netanyahu's chief rival for the party chairmanship, failed to pass.
"These are the results, these are the numbers, and I accept them," Mr. Begin said while expressing chagrin over the way that Mr. Netanyahu's high-powered campaign had overwhelmed him.
"It has become clear that there are two approaches to democracy," he said.
Meanwhile, Ariel Sharon, 64, the former defense and housing minister, withdrew his candidacy for the chairmanship. That left Mr. Levy, 54, as the only other likely contender. Mr. Shamir, 77, the current chairman, announced after the party's election defeat that he would retire as soon as a successor was chosen.
The contest among Mr. Netanyahu, Mr. Begin and Mr. Levy for the party chairmanship will bring the passage of Likud leadership from its founders to a new generation, but one still committed to the "Greater Israel" philosophy that characterized both the Begin and Shamir governments.