As Likud primaries near, final date and procedures still in the air

August 2 emerging as likely date; questions remain about whether Yamina rebels will join party and in what way; Netanyahu said concerned campaign fervor could hurt Likud at polls

Carrie Keller-Lynn is a former political and legal correspondent for The Times of Israel

Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a speech at party election rally in Ramat Gan, February 29, 2020. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)
Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a speech at party election rally in Ramat Gan, February 29, 2020. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)

As one of several parties that lets rank-and-file members determine a portion of its election slate, opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud is expected to hold its primaries in the next few weeks, but no date has been set.

After dates in late July were initially floated, sources close to the process said they now expect primaries to be in August, possibly August 2. The matter may be resolved as late as the end of next week, as setting the date requires approval from Likud’s Constitutional and Central Committees.

Voting for a new list of candidates must take place before the November 1 election, Israel’s fifth in under four years. Likud and its longtime leader Netanyahu have pledged to return the party to power, after a year in the opposition.

Likud, which has 30 seats in the outgoing Knesset and regularly emerges from elections as the largest party, runs a complicated primary system to determine a sizable chunk — but not all — of its candidate list. MK David Bitan claimed last week that primaries and the accompanying campaigning cost the party around NIS 10 million, as candidates try to reach Likud’s approximately 140,000 registered members.

The party’s electoral slate is set in five phases. First, Likud determines its leader. However, the leadership contest was scrapped after the only internal opposition to emerge publicly against Netanyahu, Likud No. 2 Yuli Edelstein, bent to pressure to withdraw his candidacy last week. Instead, the party’s Constitutional and Central Committees will soon approve a proposal to keep Netanyahu in the seat he’s held cumulatively for 23 years, according to Likud sources.

Second, Netanyahu, as party leader, can appoint three people to guaranteed spots on the party list. Those spots are being eyed by three former Yamina MKs who contributed to toppling the coalition led by their own former party leader and now-Alternate Prime Minister Naftali Bennett. A day after Bennett and current Prime Minister Yair Lapid initiated the process to dissolve the Knesset and hold new elections, Netanyahu said that he has a number of secured spots to hand out and that he’ll “take into account” the fact that lawmakers like the Yamina rebels “remained loyal to ideology.”

Benjamin Netanyahu and Yuli Edelstein during a Knesset vote on the state budget, November 4, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

A day before, Lapid charged that it was “illegal” to trade a secured spot on a party slate in exchange for voting against the coalition, vowing such behavior would be investigated. Lapid’s remarks came amid reports that Likud was guaranteeing Yamina’s final and decisive defector — MK Nir Orbach — a seat.

While it seems likely that Likud will honor some form of its deal with MK Idit Silman, who kicked off the coalition’s slow demise when she quit in April and deprived it of a parliamentary majority, it is unclear whether Orbach will get the same treatment.

Likud’s faction chair, MK Yariv Levin, cast doubt on Orbach’s chances with the party, saying that while he appreciates the longtime Bennett ally’s contributions to toppling the government, Likud does not have an absolute commitment to him.

“MK Orbach absolutely did some important things for the fall of the government, but he is not where Silman and [Amichai] Chikli are. Neither in timing nor in intensity. I don’t think there is a commitment to him on the same level,” Levin told Radio Kol Barama on Tuesday morning.

Levin said that Silman and Chikli, however, could find a home in the Likud — though he did not address whether that means either will get a secured spot.

He said he has a “deep moral commitment” to the two. “If it is possible and they want it — they will be in the Likud,” Levin added.

The third Yamina rebel MK, Chikli, could pose a potential problem. Likud would prefer to absorb him into its ranks rather than have Chikli draw away right-wing votes to a potential new party that he said he’ll form. It’s unlikely that Chikli — a political novice most famous for protesting his own party leader’s decision to form a disparate power-sharing government that included an Islamist Arab party — will garner the minimum 3.25 percent of votes needed to make it into Knesset on his own. If he fails to clear the threshold, those right-wing votes would go to waste in an election where every mandate counts.

Chikli was ousted from Yamina for the exact behavior that won him Likud’s praise. As consequence, Chikli is barred from running with any existing list in the upcoming elections. He is currently appealing the decision to the High Court of Justice.

MK Idit Silman and opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu at the Knesset on June 13, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

After filling the guaranteed spots, the next three phases set the rest of the list.

In the third stage, the “national list” is determined by party members voting in the primaries. Fourth, members vote to choose candidates for “minority” spots who are slotted into the national list. For example, Likud holds a few spots for women, new immigrants and other specialty representatives.

Finally, Likud reserves 10 spots for district-specific candidates. These candidates are not elected by primary voters but rather by members of the party’s roughly 4,000-strong Central Committee.

The majority of candidates will not enter the Knesset. In 2021, Likud presented a 120-candidate long slate, but only sent the top quarter to parliament.

Though no date has been set, the primary contest has already begun. Among the most notable candidates who have thrown their hats into the ring as they seek to reenter the Knesset are former ambassador to the United Nations Danny Danon and ex-MK Moshe Feiglin. Netanyahu’s economic adviser Avi Simhon is a new face garnering attention, while on Tuesday, veteran MK and former minister Yuval Steinitz announced his political retirement, after 23 years as a national Likud politician.

In a speech Thursday, Netanyahu said the next election will be about the cost of living, restoring “national pride” and countering Iran. Consistent Likud messaging also focuses on the role of Arabs in national politics and criticism of the legal system.

Regarding the latter,  the thrice-indicted Netanyahu is reportedly worried that intra-party pandering during primaries might detract from the Likud’s appeal during the general. In particular, the Likud leader is eying so-called “soft” right voters, who may otherwise back Yamina or New Hope.

In addition to their push for greater sway over the Supreme Court, Likud MKs hit out at Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara this week. MK Yoav Kisch tweeted on Sunday that the party would seek to oust the attorney general if she lets Defense Minister Benny Gantz move forward with appointing a new military chief of staff ahead of the election.

Likud MK Yoav Kisch speaks to supporters of Gideon Sa’ar’s then-Likud leadership campaign opening event in Or Yehuda, December 16, 2019. (Gili Yaariq/Flash90)

“The direct ramification [of such a move] would be to her and her status,” Kisch said. He added that “only an attorney general ‘on behalf of’ [the current government] would allow this.”

Likud MK Shlomo Karhi took it a step further on Sunday, saying Baharav-Miara should be sacked regardless.

A Channel 12 report said that Netanyahu has started to worry that several party lawmakers have gone from being an “asset” to a “burden,” given the primary fervor.

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