Israel's battered Likud Party chose Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday to run against Ariel Sharon in March elections, and the former Israeli prime minister pledged to bring the party back to power.

Exit polls from all three Israeli TV stations showed Netanyahu with 47 percent of the vote, while his closest rival, Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, got 32 percent.

Party leaders did not wait for the official count to declare Netanyahu the winner, and Netanyahu promised that his nomination to run against Sharon as a candidate for prime minister would be the beginning of "returning the Likud to power."

He said, "First of all we must bring the Likud back to itself and then to the leadership of the country. It begins now, up, up and up."

Addressing his supporters earlier, Shalom said he called Netanyahu to congratulate him on his victory and called on him to "sit down and work out a common program so that we can remain a united Likud."

Netanyahu, who quit Sharon's government in protest over his pullout from Gaza and the West Bank in the summer, was expected to lead Likud into the most hawkish camp of the Israeli political spectrum, leaving the center for Sharon's new party, Kadima.

Sharon took a dozen Likud members of parliament with him to his new party and added some prominent members of the left of center Labor Party — including the elder statesman Shimon Peres.

Meir Sheetrit, a Cabinet minister who left Likud along with Sharon and joined Kadima, said Netanyahu's victory would help Kadima, because "it distinguishes his party from Kadima."

Newspaper polls show the Likud losing two-thirds of its strength in the March 28 election, a stunning comedown for the party that has dominated Israeli political life since 1977.

"We need to present an alternative to Sharon's policy of unilateral withdrawals that have brought Qassam (rockets) to Ashkelon," said Likud faction chief Gideon Saar, referring to rockets fired by militants in Gaza that exploded not far from the Israeli city.

Netanyahu, who served as prime minister from 1996-1999, is an experienced campaigner and polished public speaker.

"Netanyahu has already defeated a sitting prime minister (Peres in 1996), and he can do it again," political analyst Hanan Crystal told Israel Radio.