Upbeat at primaries, Likud voters see no need to choose between Netanyahu, Sa’ar
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Upbeat at primaries, Likud voters see no need to choose between Netanyahu, Sa’ar

Members of ruling party believe PM’s accusations of a leftist conspiracy against him, but don’t think former minister targeted by the premier is part of it

Raoul Wootliff is the The Times of Israel's political correspondent.

  • Likud supporters campaign for party members and candidates at the Tel Aviv Likud polling station on February 5, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
    Likud supporters campaign for party members and candidates at the Tel Aviv Likud polling station on February 5, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
  • Campaign flyers for Gideon Sa'ar the Tel Aviv Likud polling station on February 5, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
    Campaign flyers for Gideon Sa'ar the Tel Aviv Likud polling station on February 5, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
  • Likud supporters campaign for party member David Amsalem  outside Tel Aviv Likud polling station on February 5, 2019 (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
    Likud supporters campaign for party member David Amsalem outside Tel Aviv Likud polling station on February 5, 2019 (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
  • Likud MK Oren Hazan with Likud supporters outside Tel Aviv Likud polling station on February 5, 2019 (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
    Likud MK Oren Hazan with Likud supporters outside Tel Aviv Likud polling station on February 5, 2019 (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
  • Likud supporters campaign for party members and candidates at the Tel Aviv Likud polling station on February 5, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
    Likud supporters campaign for party members and candidates at the Tel Aviv Likud polling station on February 5, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
  • Coalition chairman David Amsalem with Likud supporters outside Tel Aviv Likud polling station on February 5, 2019 (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
    Coalition chairman David Amsalem with Likud supporters outside Tel Aviv Likud polling station on February 5, 2019 (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
  • Likud supporters campaign for party members and candidates at the Tel Aviv Likud polling station on February 5, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
    Likud supporters campaign for party members and candidates at the Tel Aviv Likud polling station on February 5, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

As thousands of party members made their way through the throng of people surrounding the Jerusalem Convention Center, where the city’s largest Likud primary election polling station was housed, they almost certainly passed by a 66-year-old volunteer, who was there from the moment the polls opened at 10 a.m. Tuesday until they closed 12 hours later.

Leah Levi, a long-time Likud member, was volunteering for the campaign of coalition chairman David Amsalem and was among the innumerable leaflet-laden activists trying to persuade voters to cast a ballot for their candidate.

Across the country, similar scenes were playing out, with dozens of booths for various candidates set up outside each polling station, surrounded by keen activists like Levi. Whenever any of the 119,000 eligible voters arrived, they were immediately corralled by volunteers decked out in hats and T-shirts emblazoned with the various slogans of each candidate.

While campaign swag has largely been phased out of the Likud primaries, which used to see shawarma and even beer stands outside polling stations, candidates had plenty of shtick to entice potential voters.

MK Yoav Kisch’s campaign was offering the chance to take a photo with a cardboard Kisch cutout, making it look like you were an IDF pilot standing alongside Kisch in his own pilot’s uniform — and to take home a printed magnet of the photo as a keepsake.

Tourism Minister Yariv Levin had performers on stilts holding signs, playing the saxophone and juggling.

Outdoing his competition, the bombastic MK Oren Hazan was touring polling stations with a troupe of (not very) lookalikes mimicking his every move.

Young men dressed up like Likud MK Oren Hazan at the Tel Aviv Likud polling station on February 5. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

While most MKs spent their day traveling the country and visiting numerous polling stations, Environmental Minister Ze’ev Elkin had a much more straightforward method of reaching as many Jerusalem voters as possible.

Standing right at the entrance to the central Jerusalem polling station, the biggest in the country, the veteran Likud lawmaker simply reached his hand out to every single person who walked through the door, introduced himself with a smile and asked them to vote for him. Like Leah Levi, Elkin stood there for 12 hours straight, likely greeting over 5,000 people.

Speaking to the Times of Israel, Elkin said the primaries, while hard-fought, were “a celebration of democracy” and should act as “an example to other parties in Israel that letting the people decide is always best.”

Levi, who stood just meters away, said she chose to help Amsalem’s campaign over the others because he was ​”a man of action who really cares about helping people.”

Known primarily for his gruff defense of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu against corruption allegations, and his various legislative efforts to protect the premier from prosecution, Amsalem has specifically focused on “social-minded policies” during his time in the Knesset, said Levi.

Citing bills to cut the costs of after-school programs, Levi said she believed Amsalem deserved a second term and that “he will do a lot more great things.”

Amsalem was elected to the party slate as the representative for the Jerusalem district in the 2015 primary before the national election of the same year. Now an incumbent MK, he must vie for one of the spots designated for national candidates, a significantly tougher race with far more rivals to compete against.

Coalition chairman David Amsalem with Likud supporters outside Tel Aviv Likud polling station on February 5, 2019 (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Twenty eight MKs and ministers in total are bidding for the first 18 spots on the electoral list. 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).

But while their faces, and those of the 112 other candidates running in the primaries, were smiling down at voters from huge billboards erected next to the convention center, Netanyahu (who need not compete since he has already been elected as party leader) has spent much of his energy in recent days dealing with just one.

In the first episode of his new “Likud TV” webcast Sunday evening, Netanyahu repeated claims that Sa’ar was seeking to unseat him, and sources close to the prime minister said the premier was working to ensure Sa’ar did not emerge as the top vote-getter in the primaries.

Sa’ar, who entered the Knesset as a Likud MK in 2003 and twice came out at the top of the party primary before taking a time-out from politics, has said his ultimate goal is to be prime minister, but has also publicly pledged to back Netanyahu, a vow he repeated ahead of Tuesday’s vote.

Gideon Sa’ar, a former minister, casts his vote during primaries elections at the Tel Aviv Likud polling station on February 5, 2019. (Flash90)

Netanyahu, however, claimed that Sa’ar had approached a number of people within Likud and asked them to throw their support behind him so that he would be tasked with forming a government after the elections — due to an expected announcement by the attorney general that he will be indicting the prime minister on charges of graft, pending a hearing.

Levi said she was “troubled” by the accusations against Sa’ar and believed them to be true, but nonetheless voted for the former Likud minister “because he was on Amsalem’s list.”

With candidates far outnumbering the spots on the ticket, the ruling party’s primary has become known for behind-the-scenes horse trading. In an arrangement 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 produce “recommendation lists” of whom to vote for, with activists even handing out pre-filled ballot papers to supporters at polling stations. As part of the deals to secure a place on these tickets, some party operatives also create “assassination lists” of candidates to avoid.

Sa’ar was reportedly Netanyahu’s number one candidate to keep off the slate, but while Levi and others were swayed by the prime minister’s accusations against him, many other party members were unconvinced, as underlined by Netanyahu loyalist Amsalem’s decision to include Sa’ar in his list of recommendations.

Most voters who spoke with The Times of Israel dismissed the accusations and said they didn’t believe them to be true.

Likud supporters campaign for party members and candidates at the Tel Aviv Likud polling station on February 5, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Shlomo Malka, a Likud member who eagerly took one of Levi’s leaflets, said he “just couldn’t imagine Sa’ar” would do something like that. Asked why Netanyahu would publicly accuse Sa’ar of treachery if it wasn’t true, the 24-year-old Jerusalemite said simply, “Bibi has his reasons, but that doesn’t bother me.”

But while Malka wasn’t sold on Netanyahu’s claims of a coup by his former minister, he said that the premier’s accusation of a wider conspiracy aimed at bringing him down was “certainly true.”

Police have recommended Netanyahu stand trial for bribery in three separate corruption cases. Denying any wrongdoing, the prime minister has claimed the investigations are part of a political vendetta and witch hunt, aimed to oust him, involving the political left, the media, and the police, all relentlessly pressuring the “weak” attorney general to indict him.

“The media are leftists. What they are doing is a disgrace. They are trying to bring him down in every way possible. The police are also leftists. Everyone is scared of the media. They run everything. It’s not even a real democracy any more,” Malka said, before ending the brief interview to go and vote.

Voting in his first Likud primary, US born Lou Weiss said he had “full trust in Netanyahu,” both in terms of running the country and in regard to the criminal allegations against him. “But on Sa’ar, I think he’s wrong.”

Skipping out on the festive and upbeat atmosphere at polling stations across the country, Netanyahu and his wife Sara Netanyahu voted at a specially built polling station in their official residence in Jerusalem.

A spokesperson for the prime minister said the private polling booth, never before implemented, was set up in order “not to disturb polling stations” with excess security measures.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and his wife Sara, center, vote in Likud party primaries at a specially set up polling booth in the Prime Minister’s residence in Jerusalem, February 5, 2019. (Government Press Office)

For Yonatan, a volunteer running the Gideon Sa’ar booth in Jerusalem who asked that his last name not be used, the very mention of the rift with Netanyahu immediately raised passions, eliciting a vehement denial that the prime minister had even made the claims against Sa’ar.

“He was just saying that someone has told him might be true. Netanyahu wasn’t saying it is, just that others has told him,” he said.

And what of Netanyahu’s claims against the police and the media? Was the prime minister also just repeating what someone had told him? “No, no no,” insisted Yonatan, adding “that is completely different. People are genuinely trying to bring him down.”

Sa’ar, on the other hand, “has never said he wants to replace Netanyahu. Eventually, if he wants to be prime minister, then why not? But he would never want to be in place of Bibi,” he said.

For some voters, the Netanyahu-Sa’ar row was just an example of the political games expected in a democratic party like Likud.

Campaign flyers for Gideon Sa’ar the Tel Aviv Likud polling station on February 5, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Elie Lifshitz — who spoke to The Times of Israel after grilling Noam Sela, a candidate for the youth-spot on the party slate, over his commitment to free-market economics — said that his voting considerations were based on policy issues and not “political bickering.”

Lifshitz said he was particularly focused on whether candidates were committed to a capitalist world view, and were “not the socialist types who have come into Likud,” and also whether they had a “traditional right-wing record when it comes to Israel and security.”

“The stuff with Sa’ar really doesn’t interest me,” he said.

With his accusations against Sa’ar, Netanyahu turned the primary into something of a barometer over his ability to command control within the party.

With results trickling in overnight Tuesday and Wednesday, and the wide expectation that Sa’ar won’t fare too badly, Netanyahu may be in for a disappointing night on that front. But for many voters, with the prime minister not on the ballot at all, there was no need to chose between the two, just between the 142 candidates who were running.

Sarah Sachs contributed to this report.

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