Two performers on stilts, wearing shirts emblazoned with Likud lawmaker Yariv Levin’s name, greet voters entering the carnival that Wednesday’s Likud primary has created at Rishon Lezion’s community center.
As they move among the candidates, campaign banners, food and treats, voters are continuously derailed on the short walk to the voting booth, stopping to catch up with friends, chat with activists and politicians, or just to grab a campaign-emblazoned lollypop and take in the scene.
Lauded as a “democratic celebration” by several Likud lawmakers and supporters alike, the party’s primary delivers Likud members a major opportunity to influence which politicians represent Israelis at the national level. Only four Knesset parties hold a form of primaries, and as Likud is projected to retain its status as Israel’s largest party, its primary will create the largest number of voter-chosen candidates.
The central Israeli city is home to a few thousand of Likud’s nearly 140,000 registered party members, according to Rishon Lezion’s Likud branch chairman, Michael Raif. It is only one of the 110 physical voting locations the party has opened across the country.
Some parties have migrated to a remote voting system, but for Likud activists, the effort of in-person voting seems to be part of the charm.
“It’ll fill up here in a few hours. A lot of people chatting, it’s fun,” said Yoram, a local activist who declined to share his last name.
Several voters crowded around lawmakers who stopped by the polling spot for some last-minute meet-and-greets and endless selfies. Lesser known candidates, such as would-be lawmaker David Sharan, took the initiative and approached voters for a handshake.
Sharan is a former bureau chief to Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu and has been indicted on suspicion of taking bribes related to a submarine procurement scandal. The trial is ongoing.
“If the Likud really believes in legal reforms, then we can’t say that we believe in them externally but that internally it causes a problem,” he said of his candidacy, claiming that the submarine case had stalled: “They tried to get into it and didn’t succeed.”
The submarine affair is one of a series of corruption investigations linked to Netanyahu, who is currently on trial for three unrelated corruption cases.
When activists were asked whether Netanyahu’s trial put voters off, several answered that they stood behind the Likud leader.
Raif, who is also a Rishon Lezion deputy mayor, said that the trial “doesn’t bother” him.
“We all know that the media doesn’t love Bibi, apparently he’s too truthful and direct,” he said, using Netanyahu’s nickname.
He, like several others, said he was more concerned with security matters, on which he believes only the right can be trusted.
“Israel needs to be powerful and be right wing. Not because I’m against leftists, but because we need to show strength,” Raif said, calling out threats from Iran.
At a polling station in Tel Aviv, newcomer Avi Simhon, a Netanyahu economic adviser, was eagerly shaking hands with voters. Former Israel Hayom editor and newly minted Likud member Boaz Bismuth, also running for a spot, gave interviews to television stations in three languages — Hebrew, English and French — before casting his own vote.
Accompanied by his wife Sara at the Tel Aviv location, party leader Netanyahu said that Wednesday was “a day of celebration for the State of Israel and for Likud.”
“If we want to prevent a sixth round of elections, then we need a big Likud party,” he added in a statement to reporters.