Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu suffered a major political blow on Monday when the internal tribunal of his Likud party revoked two key resolutions passed by the party's central committee by secret ballot last week. One would have moved up the date for selection of the party slate for the March 17 Knesset elections, and the other would have given Netanyahu as Likud head the power to appoint candidates for two reserved slots on the party slate.
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The decision invalidating the central committee decisions was handed down by a panel of three people, who were divided in their positions. In light of the complexity of the issue, the legal adviser to the party, Avi Halevy, has filed a request for it to be discussed again, this time by a five-member panel that is supposed to convene Tuesday.
In Israel’s system of proportional representation where parties are awarded Knesset seats based on the proportion of the votes they garner, the reserved slots are usually ranked high up and thus afford hand-picked candidates a reasonable prospect of getting elected.
In recent weeks, Netanyahu’s associates have said that the reason he had sought to move up the date for selection of the slate – and to hold it on the same day as the vote on his re-election as head of the party – was to save Likud millions of shekels.
However, there are also political reasons for such a move. Holding the two votes on the same day would have likely led to substantial backing for the prime minister’s re-election, Likud sources say. Simultaneous balloting would probably bring out tens of thousands of uncommitted party members, almost all of whom would vote for Netanyahu. On the other hand, supporters of his rivals for the top spot – Moshe Feiglin and Danny Danon – are generally well organized, the sources note, and could be brought in relatively easily to vote on two separate dates.
Netanyahu's primary campaign headquarters issued the following response on Monday: "The [tribunal's] ruling was surprising in light of the fact that the vast majority of the members of the Likud central committee voted in favor of a single date and moving up the primary to save the movement millions of shekels and to proceed to the general election as soon as possible.
"The decision to have an expanded panel rehear the matter tomorrow is welcome. There is no doubt that the good of the movement, including the financial savings and advancement in the general election, demands a change in [the party court's] decision."
Party sources say that revoking Netanyahu’s power to appoint candidates to reserved slots on the Knesset slate will make it harder for the prime minister to shape what he sees as an attractive ticket.
The sources confirmed, for example, that Netanyahu had been considering reserving a spot for Maj. Gen. (res.) Yoav Galant. Now, they say, he cannot take such a step. Indeed, candidates like Galant won’t be attracted to run on a Likud slate if they have just two weeks to mount their primary campaigns, party sources say.
Last week's central committee resolutions were appealed by petitioners that included Feiglin as well as his associate, Michael Puah, a member of Likud's constitution committee.
The party tribunal, headed by former MK Michael Kleiner, ruled that the explicit language of the Likud constitution does not permit holding the two votes on the same day. The court also rescinded approval for Netanyahu to fill the reserved slots on the slate, on the grounds that the constitution says that process must involve the party membership, which votes by secret ballot.
For his part, the director general of Likud, Gad Arieli, had argued before the court that holding the vote on the party leadership and on the Knesset slate on the same day would save the cash-strapped party a lot of money. In response, however, the panel said the party’s constitution could not be reinterpreted based on budgetary considerations.