Netanyahu's Popularity to Be Tested in Likud Primary

Benjamin Netanyahu a shoo-in to beat Danon, but not necessarily by an impressive margin.

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu votes in the Likud primary, December 31, 2014.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu votes in the Likud primary, December 31, 2014. Credit: Emil Salman
Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis

How impressively Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wins the Likud leadership race is the main question hanging over the ruling party’s primary on Wednesday, as more than 96,000 members are registered to cast ballots for the party’s leader and Knesset slate in the March 17 election.

While Netanyahu is fully expected to win the leadership race against MK Danny Danon, there has been considerable criticism within the party of his performance during this term, and it remains to be seen if this denies Netanyahu the thumping victory he seeks in advance of the general campaign.

Most observers believe the slate that emerges will be somewhat more right-wing and duller than its predecessor, and will be made up primarily of incumbent MKs and veteran Likud activists. All the current ministers, except for Limor Livnat, who is leaving political life, are vying for a realistic spot on the list. The most recent polls show the Likud winning 24 seats.

Likud officials are worried that the party’s slate will make voters shy away from the party. “Naftali Bennett is starting ‘Likud B’ just around the corner, with attractive candidates who don’t remind voters of religious Zionism at all,” said a senior Likud official. “Likud features a list of businessmen and politicians, and Bennett – and perhaps Kahlon too – brings big names. Instead of stealing voters from the center, we’re liable to lose votes to other parties as well.”

Habayit Hayehudi’s Knesset slate is set to be joined by former Yesha Council chairman Danny Dayan, the founder of the right-wing group Im Tirtzu, Ronen Shoval, and TV journalist Yinon Magal, who has already been promised a guaranteed spot. Moshe Kahlon’s party, Kulanu, features former Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren, once considered a Netanyahu confidant. IDF Gen. (res.) Yoav Galant is also expected to join Kahlon.

Attempting to face these challenges, Netanyahu asked for permission from Likud members to guarantee two spots on the list for candidates of his choosing. Netanyahu hoped to balance the Likud’s slate with well-known security officials and economists who could enter the cabinet should Likud form the next government. His request, however, was met with furious objections. Party bylaws state that all candidates must be chosen through elections – there are no guaranteed spots.

The party’s legal council reached a compromise on Tuesday, however. In addition to voting for party chairman and the Knesset list, Likud voters will also choose a new, 100-member Likud council on Wednesday. The council will approve appointing two candidates of Netanyahu’s choosing to favorable spots on the Likud list.

The offices of Likud ministers and MKs were buzzing on Tuesday; as always before a primary election, there were rumors of deals to “eliminate” political rivals; alliances were made with vote contractors – activists who promise to deliver large blocs of votes -- and secret bets were being made on which MKs wouldn’t make the cut.

Much speculation centers on who will come first in the race. Interior Minister Gilad Erdan, whose status in Likud has improved considerably in recent months, is considered a front-runner, alongside Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz.

Katz is thought to have several advantages: In recent months he has become a close Netanyahu ally (the latter has promised him the Finance Ministry), and for years he has served as chairman of the party secretariat, one of Likud’s most powerful administrative positions.

Party activists were reporting a “huge deal” to knock out MK Moshe Feiglin, who proved very popular during his first Knesset term. “We have to be careful about putting Feiglin in a high spot,” explained a party MK. “It will strengthen the party’s image as extremist and chase voters away, particularly given the list of stars being presented by [Habayit Hayehudi’s] Naftali Bennett.”

Feiglin’s people insisted there was no such deal. “It’s not true,” Feiglin’s associates said. “There are those who want to create such an impression, but we’re on good terms with everyone.”

Another significant contest will be among female candidates. Netanyahu has received only one place for women among the first 20 candidates – slot No. 15, in contrast to the two slots – Nos. 10 and 20 – reserved for women in the last election. This is minuscule compared to other parties: Kahlon’s Kulanu is reserving half the places on its slate for women, while Yesh Atid’s list will be 40 percent women and the Labor Party has reserved four of the first 20 places for women.

Three Likud MKs – Miri Regev, Tzipi Hotovely and Gila Gamliel – hope to circumvent the reserved spot and earn safe places on the list on their own merits. Gamliel said that at parlor meetings she was urging party members to vote for all the female MKs, not just herself, as well as other female contenders. “We won’t have appropriate representation on the current list, so at least let’s have decent representation,” she said.

Party insiders say the top 10 will likely include, along with Erdan and Katz, Minister Silvan Shalom, Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, coalition chairman Ze’ev Elkin, Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee chairman Yariv Levin, Deputy Minister Tzahi Hanegbi and Interior Committee chairman Regev.

There were conflicting opinions about where Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon was likely to end up. “Ya’alon has done significant ground work in recent years, but he doesn’t work with vote contractors,” said a party source. “He could squeeze into the first 10 spots, but he might also get a relatively disappointing result from his perspective.”

Vote contractors, however, are expected to have less influence on this primary than in the past. That Netanyahu finally succeeded in getting the leadership and party primaries held on the same day dilutes the contractors’ impact, as it means that substantially more voters are expected to turn out, and higher turnout means more independent voters who are not involved in any “deals.”

Another measure taken to restrict the contractors’ influence was a party decision not to let voters cast ballots at any of the 600 polling places, but only at the one closest to their home. This means that vote contractors cannot bus large groups of voters to a single polling place, but will have to keep track of “their” voters remotely. There will be only one polling place in each district designated for voters who find themselves far from home on Wednesday.

Added to this is the decision to supply voters with a rather complicated ballot, on which they will be asked to choose 11 candidates in both national and regional contests. “Gone are the days when people would put forms into the ballot box that vote contractors had filled out in advance,” said a party source. “This time it will be far more complex.”

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