Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday called on Likud’s internal court to rule out primaries for the party’s Knesset roster ahead of the March general election, after the court deemed unconstitutional a decision by the Likud Central Committee to cancel them.
“Prime Minister Netanyahu has joined the petition to revoke the Likud primaries,” Netanyahu’s spokesperson said Sunday.
Other Likud MKs who joined the petition against primaries were Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely, David Bitan, Ofir Katz, Shlomo Karai, Keti Shitrit, and Keren Barak.
Last week’s court ruling by a panel of three judges, if upheld, would force the party to hold snap primaries in the coming weeks, in addition to a leadership battle that it has scheduled for Thursday.
MK Gideon Sa’ar, who is challenging the prime minister in the leadership contest, has said he had no issue with the Likud court decision demanding primaries and had no intention of appealing it.
Likud legal adviser attorney Avi Halevy, who filed the petition, pointed out the difficulty in holding a primaries in time to submit the updated roster for the national election, and said that since the coming elections are a repeat vote, maintaining the current roster “doesn’t impinge on the rights of party members to be elected to the Knesset.”
Halevy also noted that other parties competing in the elections are not expected to hold primaries or change their rosters.
An additional hearing is expected to be held on the matter in front of a larger panel of judges than the one that called for primaries to be held.
In Thursday’s 2-1 ruling, the Likud court determined that primaries must be held unless 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 earlier this month to cancel the primaries, in a move seen by some analysts as an effort to maintain the support of loyal MKs worried they could lose their seats.
A final 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 all parties must submit their rosters for the coming March national elections — the third in under a year.
The last time the Likud held primaries was before the elections in April. Ahead of the next election, in September, the party’s court approved the cancellation of the primaries due to their proximity to the primaries held ahead of the previous national election.
Tensions in the party have run high in recent days ahead of Thursday’s leadership race, with supporters of Sa’ar saying last Tuesday that thousands of voters had been purged from the party’s rolls ahead of the primary next week.
Sa’ar’s candidacy has been criticized by Netanyahu allies as disloyal and destabilizing to the party at a time when unity is required.
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.