Likud court strikes down vote to cancel primaries for entire party Knesset list

In 2-1 decision, judges rule that only an amendment to Likud constitution can dispense with an internal race ahead of general election; another hearing now likely

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

Illustrative: Likud supporters outside the Ashdod Likud branch during a primaries vote on February 5, 2019. (Flash90)
Illustrative: Likud supporters outside the Ashdod Likud branch during a primaries vote on February 5, 2019. (Flash90)

Likud’s internal court on Thursday deemed unconstitutional a decision by the party’s central committee to cancel primaries for its Knesset roster ahead of the March general election.

The ruling could force the party to hold snap primaries in the coming weeks, in addition to the leadership battle that it has scheduled for December 26.

Still, several party officials, including a spokesman for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, told reporters that an additional hearing is expected to be held on the matter in front of a larger panel of judges.

In Thursday’s 2-1 ruling, the Likud court determined that primaries could only be canceled if an amendment is made to the party’s constitution, which currently requires that primaries be held before any general parliamentary election. Any vote to amend the constitution would require a two-thirds majority of the Likud Central Committee.

Netanyahu had led the initiative that saw the central committee vote a week and a half ago to cancel the primaries, in a move seen by some analysts as an effort to maintain the support of loyal MKs worried they would lose their seats in a primary. The court had approved cancellation of a primary ahead of the September vote, due to their proximity to those held ahead of the previous national election, in April.

During a campaign stop Thursday at the Givat Hamatos neighborhood in East Jerusalem, where construction has been put on hold in recent years by the Netanyahu government, Gideon Sa’ar, who is challenging the prime minister in next week’s Likud leadership contest, said he had no issue with the Likud court decision and had no intention of appealing it.

The court further ruled that Likud’s merger agreement guaranteeing three spots on the party’s slate for Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu party will be extended for the upcoming election as well. Kahlon is not expected to run again, but the ruling means that his Kulanu colleagues Eli Cohen and Yifat Shasa-Biton will be able to keep their spots (15th and 30th respectively) without competing in primaries.

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)

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.

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 had not paid dues, 1,440 canceled 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)

But members of Sa’ar’s campaign team claimed some people had been removed from the list merely for “liking” on Facebook a post by New Likudniks 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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