As results in the Likud primary trickled in Wednesday, Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, Transportation Minister Israel Katz, former interior minister Gideon Sa’ar and Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan were set to take the top four spots on the party slate — after leader Benjamin Netanyahu — with over three-quarters of the votes counted.
During the nail-biting, sluggish vote count of the 587 polling boxes from around the country, Edelstein and Katz exchanged places at the top for most of the night.
The results signal a rebuke to Netanyahu by the party rank and file after he launched a frontal assault on Sa’ar’s candidacy, accusing Sa’ar in a pre-vote video of plotting to replace him after the April 9 election, and refused to include Edelstein, who has served as Knesset speaker since 2013, in his recommendations to primary voters.
Indeed, in most cases where Netanyahu was perceived as having a clear preference for a candidate, he failed to get his wish.
His most prominent defenders in his corruption cases, David Amsalem and David Bitan, either failed to make gains or, in Bitan’s case, were pushed down the list. His former chief of staff David Sharan, a suspect in the “Case 3000” submarine graft probe, was trailing Sa’ar ally Michal Shir for regional representative for Tel Aviv (#31 on the party’s Knesset slate).
Following Erdan to round out the top six were Culture Minister Miri Regev and Immigration Minister Yoav Gallant (who recently defected from the Kulanu party). Former Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat, a newcomer to national politics, came in a startlingly high seventh, followed by Tourism Minister Yariv Levin, Social Equality Minister Gila Gamliel and MK Avi Dichter at 10.
They were followed by Environmental Protection Minister Ze’ev Elkin, Netanyahu confidants Regional Cooperation Minister Tzachi Hanegbi and Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz, Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely, Welfare Minister Haim Katz at 15, Science Minister Ofir Akunis, MK Amir Ohana, and coalition chairman Amsalem.
The list suggested Netanyahu succeeded at least in his last-minute push for what he termed “respectable” candidates to fortify the party against the external challenge mounted by Benny Gantz’s Israel Resilience party. MK Oren Hazan, a lightning rod for criticism and scandal throughout the past four years, came in at just 28, which will translate to a slot well past 40 on the final slate.
To obtain the final list, the national list is combined with the reserved positions elected in special regional races, as well as minority candidates given guaranteed slots. (Netanyahu, the party chairman, was elected in a separate primary.) Positions reserved for regional candidates are at slots 19, 22, 23, 27, 31, 35, 36 and 39; three appointments at Netanyahu’s discretion are at 21, 28 and 38 (the right to make the appointments was granted by a 56%-32% vote by the party’s membership in Tuesday’s primary); three slots reserved for new women candidates at 23, 33 and 37 (one slot is reserved for both a region and a woman); and positions for a new immigrant at 30, a minority candidate at 32 and a young candidate at 34.
In its most optimistic polls, Likud is expected to win no more than 34 Knesset seats.
A total of 69,719 voters cast ballots, each ballot composed of a list of 12 preferred candidates, for a total of 836,628 candidate votes cast, though no candidate can win more than 69,719. Edelstein led the count with 30,042; followed by Katz with 29,426; Sa’ar, returning to politics after a four-year hiatus, at third with 27,356; Erdan just behind with 27,329; and Regev with 26,624.
Voting booths across the country closed at 10 p.m. Tuesday night.
Some 119,000 Likud party members were eligible to vote in a complicated ranking system for national and district candidates in 113 polling stations across the country. Fifty-eight percent of those eligible eventually voted, a jump from the 52% turnout in the last primaries held in 2014.
In total, 142 candidates competed for the top spots on the electoral slate, all hoping to score high enough to ensure certain entry to the 120-seat Knesset. Among incumbent MKs and influential newcomers, there was intense competition for the highest spots on the ticket, which all but guarantee a position at the cabinet table.
With Netanyahu keeping the top spot as party leader and veteran Likud lawmaker Benny Begin retiring (again) from public service, 28 currently serving MKs and ministers were bidding for an estimated 18 spots on the nationwide slate that are believed a likely shoo-in to the Knesset. They were joined by Sa’ar and newcomers Barkat and Galant for a crowded race.
At the other end of the results list, several sitting MKs were almost certainly pushed out of the Knesset, including Yehudah Glick, former Netanyahu Knesset appointee Anat Berko, Nurit Koren and Nava Boker, and Hazan.
Communications Minister Ayoub Kara, the only senior Likud candidate from the Druze minority, appeared to have failed miserably. He was at 24 at last count, putting him in the 40s on the final slate and outside the Knesset.
Final results were expected to emerge Wednesday afternoon, with ballots being counted by hand at the Kfar Hamaccabiah hotel complex in Ramat Gan.