The Likud Central Committee voted Wednesday in favor of a proposal by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to set an earlier date for the party’s primaries, moving them from the beginning of January to December 31.
The motion was ostensibly intended to clear the way for the chosen Likud head to begin preparations for the March 17 elections as soon as possible, but is seen by many as an attempt to thwart a leadership bid by popular former minister Gideon Sa’ar.
The primaries had originally been scheduled for January 6. The Likud decided it will now choose both its leader and its Knesset slate on December 31, in a vote seen as underlining Netanyahu’s strong support in the party. The committee also approved allowing Netanyahu to place two candidates of his choice on the Likud slate — in the 11th and 23rd spots.
The Likud said some two-thirds of the 3,700 eligible party members cast ballots on the measure — approving it by 1,567 to 835 — in what was seen as a litmus test for Netanyahu’s popularity within the party.
“Thanks to the Likud members for the overwhelming support,” Netanyahu said after the results were announced. “This is an important stage in the upcoming elections which will be won by Likud.”
Moving the primaries forward will likely hamper efforts by Sa’ar to mount a possible campaign to challenge Netanyahu for the party leadership, analysts say.
Sa’ar, who recently said he was taking a break from politics, has yet to declare whether he will run for the leadership post but earlier Wednesday panned the move to bring the primaries forward.
“Changing the rules of the game during the campaign is not fair,” Sa’ar said. “The date for the primaries for the Likud was already set for January 6 and there is no reason to change it.”
On Wednesday evening, Labor party leader Isaac Herzog and Hatnua leader Tzipi Livni announced a merger, in a bid to establish a large center-left political bloc and remove Netanyahu in the March 2015 elections. Under the union agreement, the two will share the prime ministership on rotation, with Herzog as prime minister the first two years and Livni the last two years, should they win the upcoming elections.
A Likud statement said it was now clear that the March 17 elections would be between “the left” of Herzog and Livni and the “national camp” led by Likud.
A Channel 10 poll on Tuesday indicated Labor could become the Knesset’s largest party, winning 22 seats compared to Likud’s projected 20.
On Monday the Knesset voted in favor of a bill to dissolve the parliament, officially putting an end to the current government and paving the way for new elections in March.
The government, made up of Likud, Yisrael Beytenu, Hatnua, Yesh Atid and Jewish Home, was formed in March 2013 but eventually collapsed amid heated squabbling over legislation and accusations by Netanyahu, swiftly denied, that ministers Lapid and Livni had tried to oust him in a “putsch.”