Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was poised, as expected, to decisively win the Likud party leadership contest, according to preliminary poll results Wednesday night, which showed Netanyahu received 85 percent of the votes with sole challenger Danny Danon coming in at 15%.
Danon, a former deputy defense minister sacked by Netanyahu, essentially conceded defeat, congratulating the prime minister and calling for party unity ahead of national elections set for March 17. “From the emerging results, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu won the election,” Danon said soon after the ballots closed. “I congratulate the prime minister and wish him success.”
According to estimates, 55% of registered Likud members cast their ballots Wednesday.
Along with the vote for the party leadership, the Likud’s 96,000 registered party supporters were choosing the party’s list of Knesset members, results of which were expected Thursday morning. Seventy candidates, including 17 MKs, were running in the party primary, vying for a slot giving them a realistic chance to serve in the 20th Knesset.
The list’s top ten is expected to include MKs Miri Regev, Zeev Elkin, Yariv Levin, Danon — all Likud hardliners — and current Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein, with Interior Minister Gilad Erdan and Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz in the top five. Danon, who in the last primaries in November 2012, won the 5th slot is expected to drop significantly
MKs Tzipi Hotovely, Netanyahu confidante Tzahi Hanegbi, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, Intelligence Minister Yuval Stenitz, and Moshe Feiglin are also competing for spots but are not expected to top the list. Ya’alon, who ranked 7th is the last leadership race, is also expected to drop in the polls.
Likud members were also voting Wednesday on a decision by the party headquarters to allow the prime minister to hold open two slots on the Knesset slate, No. 11 and No. 23, for candidates personally appointed by him. By early Thursday morning, it seemed that the majority voted in favor of the decision.
The ballots opened at 9:00 a.m. and closed at 10:00 p.m.
Earlier Wednesday, Netanyahu came to the polling station at the Jerusalem Convention Center with his wife Sara. “These primaries will decide who will receive authority to lead Likud and safeguard the state,” he said. “We need a good list and I asked for the right to hold two slots. Likud is among the few factions that have democratic internal elections.”
Danon, speaking to Ynet on Wednesday morning, said that the primaries in Likud “were democracy at its finest. One hundred thousand people wake up to come to the ballot and make a stand. I am proud of my faction.”
Danon was fired by Netanyahu during the summer war between Israel and Hamas. In media appearances and in his public statements Danon consistently took a more hawkish stance than Netanyahu and overtly criticized his boss’s management of the campaign.
In several press conferences during the war, Netanyahu scolded dissenting voices from within the government who he said were harming the government’s position vis-a-vis Hamas and in the international arena. Danon was even featured in a Hamas propaganda clip as proof of what they called Netanyahu’s weakness and indecisiveness.
On Monday, the Likud comptroller cleared the way for Netanyahu to run in the primary after he was temporarily disqualified for conduct which the comptroller, Shai Galili, said was in violation of Israel’s Party Law.
Netanyahu was instructed by the top court of Likud to dismiss three of his advisers, who also hold positions in the management of the party, until Wednesday at midnight, as a condition for allowing him to stand in the primary.