Schooled in the primaries: 6 things to know for February 7
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Schooled in the primaries: 6 things to know for February 7

Iran, Gaza on the back burner, as papers examine setback to Netanyahu, after his chief Likud rival makes a strong showing in primary vote despite efforts to sideline him

Tamar Pileggi is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

Activists protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the new party TV station outside the Likud headquarters in Tel Aviv on February 3, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/ Flash90)
Activists protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the new party TV station outside the Likud headquarters in Tel Aviv on February 3, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/ Flash90)

1. The buzz in the Hebrew-language press on Thursday was about the Likud primaries that dealt somewhat of a setback to Benjamin Netanyahu, whose chief internal rival made a strong showing despite a campaign by the prime minister to sideline him.

  • Final results published Wednesday evening showed former minister Gideon Sa’ar finishing fourth in the internal party vote. Netanyahu views Saar as a potential replacement and had lobbied party members hard to push him down the list.
  • The Likud party has a strong lead in polls ahead of April 9’s elections and is expected to win around 30 out of the Knesset’s 120 seats, but with Netanyahu facing a series of corruption charges, the primaries have taken on added significance as an indicator of potential successors within the party.
  • Unsurprisingly, Israeli media outlets and political pundits have much to say about the results of the Likud primaries, from criticizing the lack of female and minority candidates to predictions of how the party will deal with a possible Netanyahu indictment.
  • The Yedioth Ahronoth daily dedicates its first 10 pages to the new Likud list, profiling the new faces of the party and speculating who will make it into the 21st Knesset in April. Columnist Ariela Ringell Hoffman strikes a cautiously optimistic tone about the new Likud list. Despite the “hawkish, anti-democratic and extreme right-wing” rhetoric from the Likud in the lead up to the primaries, Hoffman says the internal vote actually yielded a group of more promising potential MKs. “This is relatively balanced list, even if very few women are represented… The new centrist members will make it that much harder for [new Israel Resilience party head Benny] Gantz to steal votes from the right.”
  • Columnist Ben Dror Yemini says the results of the Likud primaries “could have been so much worse.” He praises party members for “growing up” and “not continuing on as Netanyahu’s obedient soldiers.” But he still criticizes the ruling party for its increasingly rightward shift, and being “completely submissive to every demand” from ultra-Orthodox and pro-settlement coalition partners.
Former minister Gideon Saar speaks to reporters as he arrives to cast his vote in the Likud primaries in Tel Aviv on February 5, 2019. (Flash90)
  • He says the Likud needs to decide if it wants to continue shifting right-ward, or seriously pursue a peace deal with Palestinians. “Right now, the candidates are not discussing content; they’re too busy name-calling their opponents.

2. Israel Hayom, a staunchly pro-Netanyahu daily, is pleased with the “respectable list” chosen by Likud members. Much of its main story about the internal vote highlights the results as a victory for Netanyahu, and minimizes reports/rumors of dissent inside the party.

  • The paper profiles the Likud members who scored too low to make it into the next Knesset but several of whom are quoted as lavishing praise on Netanyahu and the Likud. One of the disappointed MKs, scandal-prone Oren Hazan, however, hung up his phone on the Israel Hayom reporter seeking comment.
  • Israel Hayom’s top columnist, Mati Tuchfeld, says that while the results were not an overwhelming success for Netanyahu, they prove that “he is still in charge.” He also defends Netanyahu against criticism for publicly picking a fight with Sa’ar, saying that he only sought to push Sa’ar down the list to ensure Sa’ar would not attempt to oust him as prime minister if he is indicted for corruption after winning re-election.

3. In Haaretz, columnist Yossi Verter praises Likud loyalists for defying Netanyahu, saying the primary results showed that party members “are not a flock of sheep that scares every time a herding dog barks and rushes submissively to the corral.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and his wife Sara, center, vote in Likud party primaries at a special polling booth set up in the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem, February 5, 2019. (Government Press Office)
  • The left-leaning daily also features an op-ed by former Meretz party leader Zehava Galon, who levels harsh criticism against Netanyahu for changing the nature of his own party, as well as the political landscape in Israel. “No one else (except for maybe Meri Kahane) has flirted so much with political violence, incitement and blatant lies… A brief look at what is left of the Likud party will tell you that Netanyahu will stay with us for a long time after Netanyahu himself is gone,” she says. “Netanyahu can be beaten, but the type of politics that he promoted will remain.”

4. Haaretz reports that Iran is looking to move its weapons depots in Syria away from the Damascus airport due to the wave of Israeli strikes on its military transports there.

  • Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps would like to move its weapons supply center from the capital to a remote Syrian air force base known as T4, located between the cities of Homs and Palmyra.
  • According to the report, the stepped-up Israeli strikes on Iranian military targets in Damascus have caused tension between Tehran and its allies Syria and Russia, who have been trying to prove that the Assad regime has restored stability in the country.

5. Yedioth Ahronoth includes further short promotional snippets of an interview with Israel Resilience leader Gantz that is set to be published in full in its Friday weekend edition. Yedioth published some of Gantz’s remarks on Wednesday, in which he hinted at a possible Israeli pullback in the West Bank, sparking condemnations from the right, but praise from Palestinians.

A photo released by Iranian media reportedly shows the T-4 air base in central Syria after a missile barrage attributed to Israel on April 9, 2018. (Iranian media)
  • Israel Hayom also takes aim at Gantz over his remarks, declaring at the top of its front page that the former IDF chief has “earned himself a warm hug from the Palestinians.” Following Netanyahu’s lead in branding Gantz a leftist who wants to “carry out another disengagement” from the West Bank, the paper accompanies the story with a single image of a young boy forcibly being removed by soldiers during the Gaza disengagement of 2005.
  • The Haaretz editorial also touches on Gantz’s interview to Yedioth. The daily praises the former military chief for “saying some of the right things,” but says he “should be wary of imitating the [Labor leader Avi] Gabbay precedent,” by getting flustered over the “cheap provocations” by the prime minister and his loyalists “that have become routine during the years of Netanyahu’s rule.”
  • “If Gantz is indeed made of the stuff of leadership, he shouldn’t be frightened by the gallons of venom that will be poured on him in the coming weeks in an attempt to tar him as a ‘leftist,’ an ‘Arab lover’ or someone who wants to “expel Jews from their homes,'” the paper says. “For Gantz to pose an alternative to Netanyahu, he must demonstrate a moral spine.”
Benny Gantz arrives to deliver his first electoral speech in Tel Aviv on January 29, 2019. (Jack Guez/AFP)

6. On other days, a rocket fired from Gaza that exploded outside a town in southern Israel after weeks of relative quiet would be front page news, but the extensive election coverage relegates that story to the back of Thursday’s papers.

  • According to Yedioth, the IDF as of early Thursday morning had yet to locate the impact site, though the military confirmed a rocket landed inside Israel.
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