Thousands of Likud voters tramped through soggy, stormy weather to cast ballots in the party’s leadership primary between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and challenger Gideon Sa’ar on Thursday.
Despite the hotly contested vote being the first serious challenge to Netanyahu’s grip on the party in over a decade, turnout was down slightly as compared to the 2014 primary as of the early afternoon, likely due to the inclement weather.
In a central Tel Aviv polling station, a lashing downpour wasn’t the only thing raining on Likud’s parade. Early birds who slogged through morning showers to vote first thing arrived at polling booths at 8 a.m. only to find out that they were only opening at 9 a.m., despite what they said they had been told.
“I won’t wait an hour. I need to work. Maybe I’ll manage to vote in the evening, but this miscommunication was pretty disappointing,” said one would-be-voter on his way out.
Others complained of being sent away from the polling stations they arrived at after being told they were registered elsewhere, sometimes to cities where they had never lived previously.
Last week, Netanyahu allies successfully petitioned the Likud court to only allow party members to cast a vote in the city they are registered and not elsewhere, as has been the case in previous elections for the party chair.
“I won’t be able to vote now. There is no way I can get to the polling station. Certainly not in this weather,” said Sara Harimi, a Likud member who was told that she was registered in Rishon Lezion, some 10 kilometers away.
“I’ve barely ever even been there, let alone lived there,” she complained.
But despite the occasional frustrated voter and a campaign that has included Netanyahu accusing Sa’ar of plotting a “coup” against him and Sa’ar accusing Netanyahu supporters of voter intimidation, the atmosphere at the polling station did not match that of the storm outside.
Waiting in the queue to vote, a self-identified Sa’ar voter and a Likud member wearing a Netanyahu T-shirt engaged in a civil debate about the future of the party.
“We need a change in order to win decisively. That’s the only way we can move forward,” the Sa’ar supporter said.
“How do you know Sa’ar can do that?” the Netanyahu backer replied. “The prime minister has done it before and can do it again.”
Speaking to The Times of Israel, Science and Technology Minister Ofir Akunis, who has endorsed Netanyahu, said that the race did not represent a rift in the party but is rather “a legitimate democratic candidacy from Sa’ar against the incumbent leader.”
Despite fears of bad blood persisting in Likud following the contest, which Netanyahu is expected to easily win, Akunis said that “there will be no problem in the party after today because we are one party with a united goal.”
He said he believed that the primary was good for the party.
“We saw over the past two weeks how enthused the people in the field were for Netanyahu. He lit up parlor meetings. I expect that energy to continue for the national election in March.”
Some Netanyahu supporters disagreed, saying that the primary could damage both Netanyahu and the Likud party, even if the prime minister wins. Analysts say even if Sa’ar gets 30 percent of the vote, it will expose weaknesses in backing for Netanyahu, who has controlled the party for the last 15 years and has never faced a serious challenge for the leadership position.
“Everyone can vote however they want, but in this situation, with all the pressure they are putting on him, we need to stand by him,” said Etti Aharon, a veteran Likud member, at its north Tel Aviv branch, referring to the criminal charges being brought against the prime minister.
“Showing that we are not united behind him now could hurt him,” she warned.
Another Netanyahu supporter, Ofer Baran, said the primary was “an expensive waste of time” that will “only serve to boost Sa’ar’s profile a bit while making [Likud] look bad.”
Both Aharon and Baran, however, agreed that Sa’ar’s candidacy was legitimate and that, even while they saw it as damaging, he had the right to run.
Sa’ar supporters at the polling station, which swelled and emptied as the sun played peek-a-boo amid bouts of heavy rain, were perhaps more emphatic, insisting that not only did Sa’ar have the right to run, but he needed to.
“This isn’t just about Gideon Sa’ar. This is about Likud and the right and the future of Israel,” said Mikael Amnon, a 29-year-old accountant from Tel Aviv who said he voted for Sa’ar.
“I have always supported Netanyahu but he has failed to form a coalition and I really think we have a much, much better chance under Gideon,” Amnon said.
For first-time Likud primary voter Lucy Yaroni, Sa’ar offered a chance not just to win, but also to take the party in a new direction.
“I am worried by some of the things I hear from the party leadership regarding the charges and the investigations,” she said, speaking this time some distance away from Netanyahu supporters, who she thought may not have been so happy to hear such accusations, despite the civil atmosphere.
Even Sa’ar did not campaign on replacing Netanyahu because of the charges against him, but rather on the prime minister’s inability to form a government after two tries.
“I think Sa’ar brings a different tone. He is determined but not aggressive. Ironically, he’s not so stormy,” she said, jokingly referring to the fact that Sa’ar’s name, fittingly or not, literally means “storm.”
Amid the downpour, polls will be kept open until 11 p.m.
Results are expected to trickle in from around 1 a.m.