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Likud court set to rule on whether to force full primaries for Knesset roster

Though Central Committee has voted to nix race for slate, the decision has been challenged and could be overturned, leading to a chaotic, last minute scramble

Election campaign posters on the Likud party headquarters building in Tel Aviv showing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shaking hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Donald Trump, July 28, 2019. (Adam Shouldman/Flash90)
Election campaign posters on the Likud party headquarters building in Tel Aviv showing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shaking hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Donald Trump, July 28, 2019. (Adam Shouldman/Flash90)

Likud was bracing Thursday for an imminent decision by the party’s internal court that could force a primary for its Knesset roster and lead to a chaotic, last minute in-house race.

With new national elections some 70 days away, Likud has been gearing up for a leadership primary on December 26 that will pit Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyhu against his chief rival in the party, MK Gideon Sa’ar.

Earlier this month Likud’s Central Committee voted not to hold a full primary race for the party’s entire Knesset slate, and to keep the current roster given the proximity to the last election in September.

But the decision has been challenged in the party’s internal court, which could overrule it as incompatible with the party’s constitution. Likud’s rules proclaim that a primary for the roster must be held ahead of every election (though the court had approved suspension of primaries ahead of the September vote, due to their proximity to the previous election, in April).

A court decision had been expected Wednesday evening but was delayed, and it was not clear when it would be handed down.

A ruling demanding a full party race would force Likud’s MKs into an unexpected battle for political survival with only slightly more than three weeks to go until parties must submit their rosters for the March election.

Likud MK Gideon Sa’ar launches his campaign for the upcoming primaries for the Likud chairman ahead of the Knesset elections, in Or Yehuda, December 16, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

The Central Committee could potentially vote to change the party constitution in order to sidestep such a decision, but would require a two-thirds majority to do so.

Tensions in the party have run high in recent days ahead of the leadership race, with supporters of Sa’ar saying Tuesday that thousands of voters had been purged from the party’s rolls ahead of the primary next week.

MK Yoav Kisch, who is running Sa’ar’s campaign, told Radio 103FM that 5,444 Likud members were missing from the party’s membership list, and would thus be prevented from voting in the December 26 face-off between Netanyahu and Sa’ar. He said they included fellow Likud MK Sharren Haskel, who is also backing Sa’ar’s leadership bid.

Likud officials denied the claim, saying reports were “inaccurate and false” and that of the people missing from the list, 3,071 people did not pay dues, 1,440 asked to cancel their membership, 63 died, 26 people moved to the Jewish Home party and five moved to Labor. In addition, 438 people were removed from the party in line with a decision by the internal court, probably due to an affiliation with the New Likudniks, a controversial intraparty organization, the Walla news site reported.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chairs the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem on December 8, 2019. (Ronen Zvulun/Pool/AFP)

“The claims are inflated, baseless and exaggerated,” a party spokesperson told the network. “Every proceeding concerning Likud members is done transparently, according to the law and with the supervision of the authorized bodies.”

But members of Sa’ar’s campaign team claimed some people had been removed from the list for merely giving a “like” on Facebook to a post by New Likudnik leaders, Channel 12 reported.

Sa’ar’s candidacy has been criticized by Netanyahu allies as disloyal and destabilizing to the party at a time when  unity is required. On Thursday morning former Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat told Kan Radio the challenge to the premier was “a knife in the back” to Netanyahu and expressed his belief that the results “will express the anger and frustration” by Likud voters at his move.

Sa’ar kicked off his campaign for the upcoming primary on Monday, saying Netanyahu had “no chance” of winning the next elections.

Though considered a long-shot to win the leadership race, Sa’ar is the first serious challenger in Likud to emerge in years against Netanyahu, who has failed in consecutive attempts to form a government and faces corruption charges in three criminal cases.

The charges against Netanyahu, who denies wrongdoing, were a major bone of contention in unity talks between Likud and the rival Blue and White party following elections in September, which left both of the parties short of a majority together with their respective allies.

Recent television polls have suggested that though Likud itself would do worse in the next elections with Sa’ar at the helm instead of Netanyahu, the right-wing bloc the party leads would fare better overall.

The Knesset dissolved itself last Wednesday night, triggering national elections for the third time in under a year. The Knesset set the date of the elections for March 2.

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