Does PM’s bid for early Likud primaries mean elections are near?
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AnalysisAn urgent priority is to reassert control of the restive Likud

Does PM’s bid for early Likud primaries mean elections are near?

Netanyahu is unassailable as party leader, but the Likud is shrinking in the Knesset, he's under pressure from its far-right wing, and he's facing rivalries among close allies

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

Then-minister of education Gideon Sa'ar (left) and then-minister of environment Gilad Erdan (right) flank Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as they make calls to potential voters ahead of national elections, in Tel Aviv, January 17, 2013. (Gideon Markowicz/ Flash90)
Then-minister of education Gideon Sa'ar (left) and then-minister of environment Gilad Erdan (right) flank Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as they make calls to potential voters ahead of national elections, in Tel Aviv, January 17, 2013. (Gideon Markowicz/ Flash90)

Sunday evening, on the sprawling lawn of Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz’s home in the bucolic Ashdod-area village of Kfar Achim, perhaps 2,000 middle-aged men (and a few women) gathered to share in the minister’s endless supply of grilled hamburgers and equally deep reserves of charm and vigorous hand-pumping.

Each year, on the holiday of Sukkot, Katz hosts a similar gathering, billed as “open to the public” but composed almost entirely of Likud party faithful. And each year, Katz uses the event as a platform for strengthening his position in the party machine.

“I think the Likud needs to be prepared for any situation,” Katz said ominously at the gathering. “The coalition got through the budget crisis [the fight in recent weeks between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Finance Minister Yair Lapid over the 2015 state budget], but it needs to be ready. I assume that immediately after the holiday there will be a date set for a meeting of the Likud Central Committee, to set a date for choosing the Likud candidate for prime minister.”

There it was. Yisrael Katz, the powerful transportation minister, number five on the party list, chair of the Likud Secretariat that oversees the party’s operations, and slated to be the next chairman of the party’s election campaign, openly called for primaries.

Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz (left), Finance Minister Yair Lapid (right) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (center), September 23, 2014. (photo credit: Noam Revkin Fenton/FLASH90)
Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz (left), Finance Minister Yair Lapid (right) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (center), September 23, 2014. (photo credit: Noam Revkin Fenton/FLASH90)

Katz has grown close to Netanyahu over the past year, even helping the prime minister overcome efforts in the Likud’s Central Committee to strip him of some of his control over party institutions. Katz’s public call for primaries were thus not a challenge to Netanyahu, but were likely delivered at his behest, or at least with his agreement.

It is no secret that Netanyahu is working to move up the party’s primaries, which are required before the party can participate in the next national election. But what isn’t clear is his purpose.

The move has sparked fevered speculation in the Israeli media that Netanyahu might be preparing early elections – that instead of holding out until the next mandated elections in late 2017, the current Knesset would soon be dissolved and elections could be expected as early as spring.

Netanyahu is a skilled operator, and may be doing many things at once by expediting the primaries. But a close look at the dilapidated condition of Israel’s ruling party suggests that Netanyahu’s mind may be focused more on the challenges within than on rushing to face competing parties outside.

It is a sensitive time for the Likud. Netanyahu leads in the national polls, and so is unassailable as party leader. He has brought stability, but at the cost of renewal. The rising “princes” of the party, especially former communications minister Moshe Kahlon and outgoing Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar, have contributed to a worrying tradition of leaving the party’s top ranks at the height of their popularity, and in some cases challenging their former political home at the ballot box.

Minister of Interior Gideon Sa'ar at a press conference announcing he would resign from both the cabinet and the Knesset after the Jewish holidays in order to take a break of politics, September 17, 2014. (Photo credit: Flash90)
Minister of Interior Gideon Sa’ar at a press conference announcing he would resign from both the cabinet and the Knesset after the Jewish holidays in order to take a break of politics, September 17, 2014. (Photo credit: Flash90)

Netanyahu also faces nonstop agitation from the party’s deep right flank, MKs like Moshe Feiglin, Danny Danon and Miri Regev who believe the party’s popularity should be leveraged to advance a more strident nationalist agenda – but who Netanyahu believes actually hurt that very popularity with their overzealous rhetoric.

And the Likud’s Knesset footprint is shrinking alarmingly. With Sa’ar’s imminent departure in the coming days, the faction under Netanyahu’s control will have collapsed from the 31-seat list he shared with Yisrael Beytenu as recently as June to just 18 seats, smaller than junior coalition partner Yesh Atid.

This decline comes at a bad time for Netanyahu. The Knesset is returning from its summer recess on October 22 to a session that will see several critical votes — first among these the passage of the 2015 national budget — for which the prime minister will need all the supporters he can get.

So it probably isn’t helpful that the party’s mid-level leadership is in the throes of an appointment contest. The departure of Sa’ar, who came in second only to Netanyahu in the last two primaries, opens up the powerful post of interior minister. Netanyahu has offered that post to Communications Minister Gilad Erdan, a capable and popular man in his own right, and at number three on the Knesset list a man Netanyahu is keen to keep happy, if only to stem the bleeding of the party’s talent under his watch.

Prime Minister Benjanin Netanyahu, in the middle in black, flanked by Home Front Defense Minister Gilad Erdan, in blue, and IDF Chief of the General Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz and Maj. Gen. Eyal Eisenberg in May 2013. (photo credit: Amos Ben Gershom/GPO/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjanin Netanyahu, in the middle in black, flanked by Home Front Defense Minister Gilad Erdan, in blue, and IDF Chief of the General Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz and Maj. Gen. Eyal Eisenberg in May 2013. (photo credit: Amos Ben Gershom/GPO/Flash90)

And so a fierce (if largely unremarked outside the party) contest is underway for the Communications Ministry. At least three Likud MKs, Gila Gamliel, coalition chairman Yariv Levin and Deputy Minister in the PMO Ofir Akunis, believe they are next in line for a cabinet post. All are considered close allies of the prime minister.

With that rapidly declining foothold in the Knesset, Netanyahu can ill afford to risk the loyalty of disappointed Likud MKs, but it’s hard to see how he might avoid doing so.

Ofir Akunis (photo credit: CC-BY-SA Shay Hayak/Wikipedia)
Ofir Akunis (photo credit: CC-BY-SA Shay Hayak/Wikipedia)

“We’ll wait a few days patiently,” Akunis, a former spokesman for Netanyahu, told Israel Radio this week. “I’m sure the prime minister will make the best possible decision and appoint the most fitting candidates to the ministerial posts,” he said magnanimously – before launching into a declaration of his own loyalty to Netanyahu, noting on national radio that he had stayed by the prime minister in the “dark days” of 2006, when the split of the party into Likud and Kadima led to the former’s collapse from 38 seats to 12.

Levin, too, believes the job is his. “There’s a clear agreement, which was made at the start of the [government’s] term,” he told reporters this week. “I have no doubt it will be respected and implemented. I don’t need notes or declarations on this.”

Likud MK Yariv Levin in the Knesset plenum on February 24, 2014 (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Likud MK Yariv Levin in the Knesset plenum on February 24, 2014 (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Levin is Netanyahu’s coalition chairman – in American terms, the majority whip – and slated to be the next chair of the powerful Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. The “agreement” is Netanyahu’s promise to him that he would not remain coalition chairman for long, but would be promoted as soon as the opportunity presented itself.

It is in this context – a shrinking Knesset presence, under sustained pressure from his party’s far-right wing, and facing a bitter political contest among his own closest allies – that Netanyahu has called the primaries. Before he turns to new national elections, Netanyahu is likely looking simply to reassert control and restore calm to his restive party.

Sometime in late December or early January (the exact date has not been set), the Likud Central Committee is slated to meet to vote on a series of changes to the party’s constitution and bylaws. Netanyahu is seeking a quick primary in order to cement his position as party leader before that meeting, because he intends to bring to that gathering a handful of constitutional amendments intended to strengthen his control over the Likud’s political echelon. It is unclear if he will be able to push past the institutional and legal obstacles to bringing these changes forward, or if all of them will successfully pass the vote, but a look at the proposed changes reveals something about Netanyahu’s intentions: among the amendments is a stipulation that allows the party leader to choose one out of every ten Knesset members on the party list, without resort to primaries.

If he can push through a primary election in the coming weeks (and, of course, win that primary), pass at least some of his proposals at the Central Committee vote in December-January, and pass a budget for 2015 in the Knesset plenum, he will have assured himself another safe year as head of the Likud and head of government — at which point calling early national elections would be counterproductive.

One MK’s reaction to the race for communications minister is telling. Deputy Transportation Minister Tzipi Hotovely, who is higher on the Likud party list than either Levin, Gamliel or Akunis, has refused to enter the contest.

MK Tzipi Hotovely in the Knesset, March 2011. (photo credit: Abir Sultan/Flash 90)
MK Tzipi Hotovely in the Knesset, March 2011. (photo credit: Abir Sultan/Flash 90)

“It’s very clear what will be in the next round of appointments,” she told Israel Radio this week. “Gilad Erdan will be interior minister, and chances are that no one will get the additional portfolio [of communications], because Netanyahu will either keep it with Gilad [Erdan] so he can continue his reform of the Broadcasting Authority, or will decide to keep it in the hands of one of the current ministers. So I’m not part of this festival and circus around the appointments happening right now. I think everyone is jumping on the skin of a bear that hasn’t even been hunted.” That is, acting prematurely.

If his goal is quiet, Netanyahu may well delay any fateful cabinet appointments until after the coming session’s most important votes. That way the competitors for the open cabinet post will likely be at their most accommodating during that critical time, rather than the opposite.

Finally, one can look to Netanyahu’s history for help reading the political tea leaves. There, too, signs point away from early elections. Put simply, Netanyahu has a habit of moving up primaries to a date long before a national election. Both in 2007, when he was head of the opposition, and in the last Knesset when he was prime minister, Netanyahu pushed up the party vote. Primaries may be important to ensure a party’s competitiveness over the long term, but the spectacle of a party’s leaders vilifying each other can be damaging too close to a national election. Netanyahu prefers to keep the two races as far apart as he can manage.

The Likud will have its elections sooner than expected. The country probably won’t.

One final point: Even if there are no elections in 2015, that does not mean the Knesset is likely to last until late 2017. While it is safe to assume the government will survive another year, a year is a long time in Israeli politics, and it is virtually impossible to seriously project beyond that horizon. Indeed, few Knessets, especially in recent years, have finished out their full four-year terms. As elections near, coalition parties often find reasons to bicker in a pre-election effort to distinguish themselves from each other, eventually leading at least one to pull out of the coalition and precipitate early elections.

A safe bet would thus place the next national elections after 2015, but likely long before late 2017. Or, in short, sometime in 2016.

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