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Israeli elections 2021Netanyahu edges Sa'ar as preferred PM, 34% to 32%

Likud scraps primaries; polls show Huldai party taking votes from Lapid, Bennett

Netanyahu given ok to pick 6 names to freshen up slate; said to want ex-Health Ministry DG Moshe Bar Siman-Tov; anti-PM parties heading for majority, but would they join forces?

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

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the launch of his Likud party's election campaign in Ramat Gan, March 4, 2019.(Aharon Krohn/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the launch of his Likud party's election campaign in Ramat Gan, March 4, 2019.(Aharon Krohn/Flash90)

A Likud committee on Wednesday night approved Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s request to cancel party primaries ahead of the upcoming national elections, agreeing to keep the slate it had in the previous three elections other than six spots that will be reserved for the premier’s picks.

Meanwhile, a new batch of TV opinion polls showed Netanyahu’s Likud ahead of its rivals, but the various anti-Netanyahu parties potentially capable of mustering a majority were they to agree to sit in government together.

Netanyahu had led the initiative that saw the ruling party’s constitution committee vote to cancel internal elections, 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.

Elections were called last week after the power-sharing government of Likud and Blue and White failed to agree on a budget by a December 23 deadline. They are set to take place on March 23, 2021.

The last time the Likud held primaries was before the elections in April 2019. Ahead of the next two elections — in September that year and in March 2020 — the party’s court approved the cancellation of the internal elections for the electoral slate due to their proximity to the primaries held ahead of the first national election.

A polling station for the Likud primary in Jerusalem on December 10, 2014. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

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 choose a “perfect” slate, unsullied by the caprices of party members.

Additionally, the coronavirus lockdown that began Sunday evening may rule out primaries for some political parties seeking to allow members to choose their slates. Although the closure is set to last two weeks initially, health officials have already warned it is likely to be extended to a month.

The lockdown rules bar Israelis from gathering, which would create serious logistical problems for parties seeking primaries. And as they are required to submit their slates for the elections in a little over a month, many, like Likud, will likely seek to skip the process altogether.

While Likud party members will not be able to pick its slate for a third election running, the constitution committee on Wednesday approved allowing Netanyahu to choose six spots on the roster — in the 5th or 10th spot (to be decided by the Likud Central Committee in a separate vote), as well as the 26th, 28th, 36th, 39th and 40th.

A spokesperson for Netanyahu described the vote as “a clear victory” for the prime minister, who is seeking to bolster the slate with fresh and electorally beneficial figures.

Then Health Ministry director-general Manager Moshe Bar Siman-Tov at a press conference about the coronavirus COVID-19, at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on March 11, 2020. (Flash90)

According to Channel 12 news, Netanyahu has already offered former Health Ministry director Moshe Bar Siman-Tov the fifth spot on Likud’s slate.

There was no word Wednesday on whether Bar Siman-Tov, who gained prominence as the face of the Health Ministry during the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic, planned to accept. He has said in the past he has no intention of entering politics.

Netanyahu is also reportedly considering recruiting outgoing Israeli Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer, former police commissioner candidate Gal Hirsch, and former prime minister Ariel Sharon’s son Gilad Sharon, in a possible effort to strengthen the Likud among center-right voters against the threat posed by breakaway Likud MK Gidon Sa’ar’s new party, New Hope.

Other names mentioned as possible picks include Modiin mayor and chair of the Federation of Local Authorities, Haim Bibas, and Communities Minister Orly Levy-Abekasis, who ran in the last election as part of a merger between her Gesher party and the Labor Party.

Shortly after the Likud committee decision, three polls by TV networks showed Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai’s new party eating into support for Yair Lapid’s centrist Yesh Atid and Naftali Bennett’s right-wing Yamina, but failing to much affect Likud or New Hope.

Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai announces his new ‘The Israelis’ party, December 29, 2020. (Screenshot: YouTube)

Meanwhile Benny Gantz’s Blue and White continued its crash, just barely passing the electoral threshold in all three polls.

Channel 13’s poll had Likud scoring 29 Knesset seats, New Hope 17, Yamina 12, Yesh Atid 11, Joint List 10, Huldai’s The Israelis 9, Shas and United Torah Judaism both with 8, Yisrael Beytenu 6, and Blue and White and Meretz both with 5.

Channel 12’s survey showed Likud at 28, New Hope 17, Yesh Atid 13, Yamina 12, Joint List 11, Shas 8, UTJ 8, The Israelis 8, Yisrael Beytenu 6, Meretz 5 and Blue and White 4.

And the Kan public broadcaster gave Likud 28, New Hope 18, Yamina 14, Yesh Atid 13, Joint List 11, The Israelis 8, Shas 8, UTJ 7, Yisrael Beytenu 5 and Blue and White both receiving 4 seats.

Despite enjoying a lead in all three polls, Netanyahu’s Likud and his two ultra-Orthodox party allies lack a clear path to forming the next coalition, with several rivals, including Sa’ar, vowing not to sit in a government under him.

By contrast, various arrays of anti-Netanyahu parties — New Hope, Yamina, Yesh Atid, The Israelis, Yisrael Bytenu, Meretz, and Blue and White — could muster a majority between them. Since they range across the political spectrum from right to left, however, it is not clear that they would agree to sit in government together.

Channel 12’s poll showed Netanyahu to be Israelis’ preferred choice for prime minister. But Sa’ar was close behind, with 34% for Netanyahu and 32% for the New Hope party leader.

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