Unchallenged Netanyahu cements Likud chairmanship; leadership primary formally nixed

After Edelstein withdrew, no other candidate emerged to take on ex-PM, who has helmed the party for 23 years; Likud’s full Knesset electoral slate to be set August 10

Carrie Keller-Lynn is a former political and legal correspondent for The Times of Israel

Opposition leader MKBenjamin Netanyahu during an inauguration ceremony for a new neighborhood in Beit El, in the West Bank, July 12, 2022. (Sraya Diamant/ Flash90)
Opposition leader MKBenjamin Netanyahu during an inauguration ceremony for a new neighborhood in Beit El, in the West Bank, July 12, 2022. (Sraya Diamant/ Flash90)

Continuing his longtime rule of the Likud party, Benjamin Netanyahu will officially retain his chairman position going into the upcoming November 1 elections, a Likud oversight committee confirmed on Tuesday morning.

Nobody came forward to contest Netanyahu for the Likud leadership after party MK Yuli Edelstein capitulated to pressure to withdraw from the race three weeks ago. However, the decision to cancel the leadership primary and declare Netanyahu leader could only be finalized after the deadline for candidates to declare their intention to run expired on Monday.

Opposition leader Netanyahu has helmed the party for 23 years, divided over two tenures, and continuously since 2005. During these periods, he became Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, racking up over 15 years in the top spot.

Last year, he was unseated after an eclectic but shaky mélange of parties united under the banner of opposition to his premiership. Leading a combative opposition of right-wing and religious parties, Netanyahu applied pressure that — combined with the coalition’s internal ideological struggles — helped lead to then-prime minister Naftali Bennett and now-Prime Minister Yair Lapid’s decision to draw the curtains on their government last month.

As the longtime leader of the Knesset’s largest party, Netanyahu has a deeply loyal personal base. Within the Knesset, parliamentarians publicly back him, but many have been itching for years for a shot at leading the party that Netanyahu has continued to rule with an iron fist.

While several candidates declared their intent to run for Likud leadership in January when Netanyahu was eyeing a plea deal to put to bed his three ongoing corruption cases, all but Edelstein quickly retreated when Netanyahu set the deal aside.

Likud MK Yuli Edelstein speaks at a conference in Herzliya, November 23, 2021. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Netanyahu maintains his innocence, and claims the charges against him were fabricated by a biased police force and state prosecution service, overseen by a weak attorney general, in league with political opponents and the leftist media.

Edelstein reaffirmed his intention to contest Netanyahu as the Bennett-Lapid government crumbled in June, but by the end of the month, pulled back his candidacy, citing the need for party unity.

Likud will hold a primary for the rest of the spots on its party slate, reportedly pushed back a week on Tuesday from August 3 to August 10.

The postponement is an outgrowth of another internal party debate, this time on electoral method for a portion of the Likud list. While the majority of the Likud’s Knesset slate is elected by its 140,000 registered party members, 10 spots reserved for first-time candidates from regional districts are elected directly by the 4,000-odd strong Likud Central Committee.

The rationale for switching these 10 district spots to Central Committee control in 2015 was partially explained by the need to provide some oversight over new candidates who are not well-known to voters. However, a Likud politician who has connections with the Central Committee can exert influence and potentially populate a portion of Knesset seats with candidates loyal to him.

MK David Bitan during a plenum session in the Knesset, on October 13, 2021.(Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

This latter situation is what some Likud sources say may worry Netanyahu, as MK David Bitan — himself also under criminal indictment for corruption — is strong with the Central Committee and may succeed in seeding a faction within the larger faction.

Netanyahu is reportedly behind an effort to revert the selection of district spots by party members tied to the districts those spots represent. The subject of internal Likud court decisions and upcoming committee discussions, the unresolved voting method pushed back the primaries to later in August.

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