PM’s rival Sa’ar up to third in Likud primaries vote recount

Tourism Minister Yariv Levin also moves up after votes re-tallied in the wake of irregularities

Gideon Sa'ar casts his vote at the Tel Aviv Likud polling station in the Likud primaries on February 5, 2019. (Flash90)
Gideon Sa'ar casts his vote at the Tel Aviv Likud polling station in the Likud primaries on February 5, 2019. (Flash90)

Gideon Sa’ar, one of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s main rivals, came third in the Likud primaries, putting him at number four on the party slate for the upcoming elections, after a recount was completed to include hundreds of votes that had gone missing.

According to the new results released late Wednesday, Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein came first in the primaries, and thus will take the number two spot on the Likud Knesset list for the April 9 elections (behind Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was reelected as party leader in a 2016 vote). Edelstein was followed by Transportation Minister Israel Katz, Sa’ar, Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, and Culture Minister Miri Regev.

Update: Overnight Wednesday-Thursday, the count was amended again, and Sa’ar was placed below Erdan.

Sa’ar had finished fourth in the primaries in the original, disputed count last week, so his rise by one more place deepens the rebuke to Netanyahu by Likud party rank and file after the prime minister launched a frontal assault on Sa’ar’s candidacy, accusing Sa’ar in a pre-vote video of plotting to replace him. Netanyahu also refused to include Edelstein, who has served as Knesset speaker since 2013, in his recommendations to primary voters.

Netanyahu ordered the recount after hundreds of votes disappeared in the original count. All polling stations re-entered their votes in a database following the discovery of voting irregularities.

As examples, Channel 12 had reported that in the results counted at the Sha’ar Binyamin locality in the West Bank, Sa’ar received 215 votes. However the official Likud party results only listed 160 votes for the former minister — a discrepancy of 55 ballots.

In Efrat, Sa’ar received 145 votes at the ballot box, but was only credited with 70 in the Likud results. According to the report, discrepancies could be found in the results from at least 15 polling locations across the country, and the results appear to be weighted against specific candidates — chief among them, Sa’ar.

The recount also saw Tourism Minister Yariv Levin move above Immigration Minister Yoav Gallant (who recently defected from the Kulanu party).

The top ten on the Likud Knesset slate was rounded out by Former Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat in 9th position and Social Equality Minister Gila Gamliel in tenth place.

A second recount for votes on reserved slots lower down the slate will be held Thursday, so that part of the slate could still see further changes.

Tourism Minister Yariv Levin speaks at the 15th annual Jerusalem Conference of the ‘Besheva’ group, on February 12, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Other significant irregularities in the original count included multiple cases of specific candidates receiving more votes in some locales than the total number of ballots cast in those places.

For instance, Science and Technology Minister Ofir Akunis received 229 votes in the primaries in the settlement of Mitzpe Jericho. The only problem: there are only 153 registered Likud voters there.

In the Tel Aviv suburb of Bnei Brak, there were 334 registered voters but  Regev received 436 votes.

Gallant received 780 votes in the city of Kiryat Malachi, where there were only 516 registered voters, while Katz got 1,061 votes in the city of Netivot, despite there only being 1,047 registered voters.

Likud MK Yoav Kisch chairs a Knesset Interior Affairs Committee meeting on July 12, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Ministers and lawmakers, including Tzachi Hanegbi and Yoav Kisch, filed appeals on Monday against the results and demanded a recount in some of the polling stations.

However, Likud said that after examining the issue, the problem seemed to be in the typing of the results into the computerized system rather than with the counting itself.

Some 119,000 Likud party members were eligible to vote in a complicated ranking system for national and district candidates in 113 polling stations across the country. Fifty-eight percent of those eligible eventually voted, a jump from the 52% turnout in the last primaries held in 2014.

Also on Monday, Netanyahu announced that he was giving up one of the reserved spots for a candidate of his choice on the Likud slate, following pressure by several lawmakers who had been hurt by the move.

To obtain the final election slate, the list of primary winners is combined with reserved positions elected in special regional races, as well as minority candidates given guaranteed slots.

Likud members approved Netanyahu’s request to reserve the 21st, 28th and 36th spots for candidates of the premier’s choice.

But some members petitioned against the move, including Netanyahu loyalists David Bitan and Miki Zohar, as well as MK Sharren Haskel and Shevach Stern, who won the spot reserved for a candidate from Judea and Samaria.

Netanyahu said Monday he was giving up the 21st slot, saying his decision was “out of respect for MKs David Bitan and Miki Zohar.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and David Bitan sharing a toast at a Likud faction meeting on February 27, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)

He will still be able to choose any candidate he wants for the 28th and 36th spots, and the party on Monday allowed him to secure another candidate in the 39th or 40th spot.

The decision means that MK Yoav Kisch will advance to the 21st slot on the Knesset slate, Bitan will move up to 24 and Zohar to 25.

In total, 142 candidates competed for the top spots on the electoral slate, all hoping to score high enough to ensure entry to the 120-seat Knesset. Among incumbent MKs and influential newcomers, there was intense competition for the highest spots on the ticket, which all but guarantee a position at the cabinet table.

An over-abundance of votes was also a problem in the last Likud primaries held at the end of 2014, leading to two recounts of votes to settle disputes on some placements.

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