Israel elections 2019PM wants to keep out those may turn on him if he's indicted

High stakes Likud vote opens primary season, with Netanyahu’s future in balance

Rife with backdoor deals and horse-trading, hard-fought internal race is seen as a bellwether of the prime minister’s power in the ruling party

Raoul Wootliff is a former Times of Israel political correspondent and Daily Briefing podcast producer.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu casts his vote in the Likud primaries on December 31, 2014. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu casts his vote in the Likud primaries on December 31, 2014. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Opening primary season as part of the run-up to April’s national elections, Likud members were going to the polls Tuesday to elect the ruling party’s slate of Knesset members, in a fiercely contested internal race that could act as a barometer for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s influence among his base.

From 10 a.m. to 10 p.m, some 119,000 eligible voters had a chance to cast their ballots in a complicated ranking system for national and district candidates in 113 polling stations across the country.

One hundred and forty-two candidates are competing for the top slots on Likud’s electoral slate, all hoping to score high enough to ensure certain entry to the Knesset. Among incumbent MKs and influential newcomers, there has been intense competition for the highest slots 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 are bidding for the first 18 spots on the electoral list, which are designated for candidates running in the nationwide ballot. They are joined by three heavyweights returning to the party or running for the first time: former interior minister Gideon Sa’ar, former Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat. and Immigration Minister Yoav Gallant (who recently defected from Kulanu).

Party protocol holds that anyone who has served as MK needs to run on the national slate, which fills spots 2-18, 20, 23-25 and anything beyond 35. Party members who vote in the primary election must pick their 12 preferred candidates (from the 73 running on the national list) to fill these spots, and these will then be ranked according to the total number of votes.

The ballot paper in the Likud primary election of January 3, 2019 in which party members must chose no more than 12 of the 73 candidates vying for spots on the national slate. (Courtesy)

The rest of the slate is populated by district candidates, who compete against each other for specific slots representing various regions or groups within the party. In a change introduced in this year’s primary, only members of the Likud Central Committee will able to cast votes for the district nominees, giving the party’s key decision-making body considerable power and influence over the electoral ticket.

The final slate, however, may look somewhat different from the results of Tuesday’s vote, which are expected to trickle in Tuesday night and early Wednesday morning, with a number of alterations set to be made based on certain predetermined conditions. The 10th, 20th, 25th and 31st spot, for example, will be filled by women, with the latter two of those reserved for candidates who have not yet been elected to the Knesset. The 21st and, if he requests, the 19th slots can be filled directly by Netanyahu.

Additionally, party members will vote Tuesday on a proposal that would see the prime minister appoint candidates to the 21st, 26th and 36th spots, in a move that could allow him to merge the Likud slate with a smaller party, without getting separate permission from the Central Committee.

Primaries were introduced to Israeli politics in the early 1990s, when several major parties sought to bolster public support by increasing participation in the democratic process. Since then, however, most new parties have forgone internal elections, opting instead for a system in which the party leader or a committee of officials chooses a “perfect” slate, unsullied by the caprices of party members.

The number of people actively taking part in the primaries from each party has also declined. In the first primaries of the Labor party in 1992 there were over 160,000 eligible voters; in 2015 there were only 49,000. Meanwhile, Likud went from some 180,000 eligible voters in 1996 to around 96,000 in 2015. This year may have broken the trend, with an increase in registered voters for the first time in two decades.

Enthusiasm among eligible voters has, however, has been fairly low, with turnout in the 2014 Labor primaries at just below 61 percent and the 2014 Likud poll seeing just 54% of voters cast a ballot.

Backroom deals and ‘assassination’ lists

With candidates far outnumbering the spots on the slate, the ruling party’s primary has become known for behind-the-scenes horse trading. In an arrangement sometimes looked down upon by some Likud members and political observers, prominent party members often instruct their supporters to back other candidates in return for reciprocal endorsements.

Many senior Likud members produce “recommendation lists” of whom to vote for, with activists even handing out pre-filled ballot papers to supporters at ballot stations. As part of the deals to secure a place on these tickets, some party operatives also create “assassination lists” of candidates to be avoided.

According to a Sunday report in the Israel Hayom daily, the prime minister has also drawn up a list of his own recommendations and, via backroom deals, is trying to ensure his preferences place high on the slate. At the same time, Netanyahu is actively working to prevent a number of prominent lawmakers from returning to parliament, the report said.

In this March 17, 2015 file photo, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party supporters react to exit poll results at the party’s election headquarters In Tel Aviv. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

The reported list of preferences is surprisingly headed by rookie Amir Ohana, the Likud’s first openly gay Knesset member and one of the key MKs who worked on the controversial nation-state law. Following Ohana comes Culture Minister Miri Regev, a prominent acolyte of the prime minister known for her lavish praise of him as well as her attacks on what she describes as a “leftist monopoly over Israel’s cultural institutions.”

Netanyahu’s top five was said to be rounded out by Tourism Minister Yariv Levin, Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz and Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz. These are followed by Science Minister Ofir Akunis, Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely, former and current coalition chairs David Bitan and David Amsalem, and  recent Kulanu defector Immigration Minister Yoav Galant, to close the first 10 spots.

Snagging the final five spots in the prime minister’s list of preferences as reported by Israel Hayom are MK Miki Zohar, Environmental Protection Minister Zeev Elkin, Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, Social Equality Minister Gila Gamliel and MK Yoav Kisch. Netanyahu, having been elected Likud chairman, automatically fills the number one spot on the slate.

Blocking a successor

Netanyahu’s decision on whom to advance and whom to potentially block may be fueled by fear that his fellow party members will turn on him in the event of an indictment in the criminal investigations in which he is accused on bribery.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit is reportedly set to announce this month plans to indict Netanyahu, pending a hearing; however, it is believed that it may be another year before a final indictment is filed.

If Netanyahu were to be forced to step down, the MKs with most support in the party would be considered possible candidates to replace him, making the battle for the top spots even more intense. Some commentators have even, half jokingly, described the primary as the 2020 leadership race.

The omission of a number of key Likud figures from the Israel Hayom reported list indicates the prime minister’s desire that they be kept as low as possible on the final slate, and thus denied the possibility of being seen as potential successors.

Former minister Gideon Sa’ar speaks at a Likud party conference in the central city of Lod, on December 31, 2017. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Notably, Netanyahu is trying to block success for Sa’ar, the former interior minister, whom he has accused of plotting to replace him; Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein; and Communications Minister Ayoub Kara, the report said.

Kara, a prominent member of Israel’s Druze community, had hoped to be able to run again for the 30th place on the list, reserved for a non-Jewish candidate. But thanks to Netanyahu, the spot will for the first time be open only for new contenders only and not past MKs, meaning that Kara will be forced to compete on the national list.

Edelstein placed a surprising third in the 2014 primary and, having served as Knesset speaker since 2013, is popular among Likud members. But his popularity may be seen by Netanyahu as a potential threat. Further drawing the prime minister’s anger, the Knesset speaker was recorded last year harshly criticizing Netanyahu’s attacks on the media and on his political opponents, and warning that the ruling party could suffer a major setback in the next election.

But while Netanyahu has kept his apparent efforts to hinder Edelstein quiet, he has done the opposite with Sa’ar, publicly accusing him of plotting to replace him.

Just a day ago, the prime minister dredged up unproven reports that Sa’ar had hatched a scheme that would see the president sideline Netanyahu after the elections and task Sa’ar with forming a government in his stead.

Sa’ar entered the Knesset as a Likud MK in 2003 and held the posts of education and interior minister before stepping down in 2014. He announced his return to politics in 2017. Though he has said his ultimate goal is to be prime minister, Sa’ar has publicly pledged to back Netanyahu, a vow he repeated ahead of Tuesday’s vote.

The prime minister’s attitude toward potential Likud rivals has over the years led to an exodus from the party of some of his most prominent possible successors. And perhaps due to the fear of creating potential challengers, Netanyahu has forgone his former practice of appointing the honorary positions of deputy prime minister and vice prime minister. He has also kept for himself the positions of foreign minister and, in recent months, defense minister.

David Sharan is seen during a remand hearing at the Rishon Lezion Magistrate’s Court, September 3, 2017. (Flash90)

While Netanyahu has denied having a preference for any of his current MKs, he did give one explicit endorsement for one Knesset hopeful: his former bureau chief who is currently facing possible criminal charges in the high-profile submarine scandal case.

In a message sent to party activists on Sunday, Netanyahu said that in the key district of Tel Aviv, which holds the 29th spot on the list, he was specifically endorsing his former bureau chief David Sharan, despite a police recommendation that Sharan be indicted for bribery in one of Israel’s most sprawling corruption cases.

“I value David Sharan extremely highly and think he is the best candidate in the Tel Aviv district,” Netanyahu said in a message distributed in his name.

Police in November recommended that Sharan, who served in the Prime Minister’s Office between 2014 and 2016, be charged with bribery, fraud, breach of trust, conspiracy, money laundering and violations of campaign financing law in connection with Case 3000, which involves suspected corruption in the purchase of naval vessels from German shipbuilding company ThyssenKrupp. Prosecutors have yet to make their decision on the matter.

The Tel Aviv race has emerged as one of the most intriguing regional races in the internal party ballot, with Sharan facing off against a key loyalist of Sa’ar. Here, and in the entire primary race, the final results could determine the future of not just Likud but also of Netanyahu.

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