When Likud’s 140,000 registered members vote Wednesday in a primary to fill out the party’s Knesset slate, only one thing will be certain: The top spot will still belong to longtime leader Benjamin Netanyahu.
As for the rest of the roster, voters and politicos will fan out to the 110 ballot stations across the country as current, former and would-be MKs bid for one of the top 30 or so slots — the number expected to have a realistic chance of entering the Knesset in upcoming elections. The Knesset’s largest party, Likud is currently polling at up to 35 seats.
Results about which candidates will fill the Knesset benches are not expected before late afternoon on Thursday, according to a Likud spokesman.
Wednesday’s primary comes after the vote was repeatedly delayed, first due to changes in the way the primary is managed and then by the past weekend’s conflict in Gaza, in order to accommodate residents in the south who were confined to shelters as Palestinian Islamic Jihad fired rockets at Israel during the three-day confrontation.
Many of the party’s current MKs are expected to retain their parliament jobs after elections on November 1, though some shuffling of spots is expected.
Higher spots generally give candidates more leeway to demand prominent positions once a government is formed, but even party’s most prominent candidates will still need to fight to retain influence with Netanyahu. In the recent past, the former premier has at times overlooked highly ranked politicians and promoted loyalists instead.
As happens in most primaries, a fifth to a quarter of the party’s current MKs are expected to be switched out as the party seeks new blood, especially in spots reserved for representatives from specific areas or constituencies.
Lawmakers battling for top spots that are tightly aligned with Netanyahu include faction leader Yariv Levin, Amir Ohana, David Amsalem, and the particularly vocal Miri Regev and Galit Distal.
A second group of hopeful MKs has been publicly vying to take over Likud’s reins, among them Yuli Edelstein, Israel Katz, and Nir Barkat. However, none has yet challenged Netanyahu for the leadership of the party, which he has headed since 2005.
Likud is one of just four major parties in Israel that allows members to choose its Knesset slate, along with Religious Zionism, Labor, and Meretz. Most other party rosters are determined by the faction leader or a central committee.
The Likud Knesset slate is made up of a general “national” list, in which 70 candidates will be vying for some two dozen realistic seats. Voters will also be able to choose among 40 candidates running for 10 seats reserved for representatives of regional districts, which are only open to party members who have not already served as MKs.
The Likud slate will amplify representatives for special groups, such as a female running for the first time, an immigrant, a member of the ultra-Orthodox community, and a non-Jew. The party takes the top national list performer in each category and bumps them into a reserved spot.
Another five slots are reserved for the party leader’s discretion, often used as enticements to lure candidates from outside Likud.
The final placement decisions were made last month by a committee made up of senior party members.
A number of challenges had to be overcome before Wednesday’s primary could go ahead.
Several candidates were revealed by the media to have criminal records, including former Tel Aviv district candidate David Laniado, who was convicted of assault and breaking and entering; Yoni Journo, who was convicted of kidnapping a woman; and David Sharan, who was indicted on corruption charges in connection to a submarine procurement scandal that has also been an albatross around Netanyahu’s neck.
While prior criminal convictions are not a permanent bar to elected office – and in fact, several Israeli lawmakers have past convictions or are under indictment – Laniado’s case has risen to become an internal power struggle within the party.
Netanyahu has pushed to have Laniado removed from being able to run in the primary, reportedly seeing him as a liability and worried about him joining a camp loyal to Likud MK David Bitan. The party leader’s effort ultimately led to Laniado’s disqualification late on Tuesday evening.
Criminal convictions are a particular thorn in Netanyahu’s side. The Likud chief is on trial in three corruption cases. He has long declared his innocence, and claimed that the charges were the concoction of political opponents and police investigators, aided by the leftist media and a weak attorney general.
As his party advocates for justice reform and continues to insist on the illegitimacy of his trial, Netanyahu has attempted to avoid conflating between his own charges and several candidates’ convictions.
In a statement released Tuesday morning after submitting a successful petition to the Tel Aviv District Court to disqualify Laniado, Netanyahu – who has largely worked in the background on the issue – released a statement calling for Likud voters to lend their support elsewhere.
“Laniado should be disqualified and I call on all Likud party members to vote for other worthy candidates, and your vote won’t cause Likud superfluous damage,” the Likud chief wrote.
Taking it a step further, Channel 12 reported on Tuesday evening that Netanyahu told party members he would forgo the ability to use the Knesset’s so-called Norwegian Law if Laniado were elected. The Norwegian Law allows parties to swap out ministers with new MKs from further down the party list, enabling parties to pull more of their roster into the Knesset. Laniado was vying for the list’s 38th spot, reserved for the Tel Aviv district and possibly within Norwegian Law strike territory, if Likud were to sit in the next government.
Encouraging voters to participate in this last step before shifting focus to the November general election, Netanyahu told party members to vote by returning to several of the party’s campaign messages.
“Come vote so we can win the elections, and form a strong, stable government that will lower prices and restore our national pride,” he said on Tuesday.