Sunday night's meeting of Likud activists in Bnei Brak was hardly the kind of event spokespeople invite journalists to. It was a hunting ground where ministers, MKs and aspiring MKs would say anything to gain Central Committee members' votes. The MKs' hawkish declarations revealed their true colors, but then again, a primary is coming up.
The convention's location was unusual: the hall of a home for the elderly. As I arrived, an ambulance was leaving. On stage, behind several Coca-Cola bottles, sat the strongest forces that Shlomo Almagor, head of Likud's Bnei Brak branch, could muster. Almagor is considered close to MK Yisrael Katz, the transportation minister and king of the Central Committee.
The hall was crowded and noisy. Just over 100 people came to listen, but about 20 candidates came to talk, and most of them were forced to sit at the head table with all their advisors. As one Central Committee member said, "This time, the turnout is low. There was a time when Almagor's event was a mini-Likud convention. But people have grown tired."
There were so many candidates, most of whom I had never heard of, that no room remained for them at the head table or the extra little table that had been squeezed in alongside it. Still, they tried to push in. On the side, an image of Benjamin Netanyahu was shown on a screen; it looked like he was winking at the Central Committee members.
Unlike at a Likud convention, Netanyahu's name didn't come up too many times. The Central Committee members are the party's real leaders, at least in these sweet days until the primary.
First to the stage was Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin, who arrived in a pinkish shirt and took the podium after a long list of compliments. The moderator said Rivlin had made the Knesset one of the world's best parliaments. He called him a future president.
Rivlin, who indeed does good work, offered no protest and recounted how he had just hosted parliament members from Italy and asked them what they would do if they were shelled from Monaco.
"War, war, war," hollered the Central Committee members next to me, apparently amused by calling for blood as if it were a joke. If there's a war, it's almost certain these Central Committee members will be the main reason.
No Tibi, no Zuabi
The second speaker was Katz. To get the audience's attention, Katz began by showing what he thinks about Arabs. "Ahmed Tibi isn't here, and Hanin Zuabi isn't either," he said with satisfaction, referring to Arab MKs.
Katz showed a presentation on his work as a minister; his considerable transportation achievements in the West Bank were emphasized. Because of the noise, though, you couldn't hear a thing he said. The Central Committee members, however much they support Katz, were bored by the details.
After his presentation, Katz complimented the young activists who turned up; it was a reflex - hardly anyone under 50 was in the audience. He switched to Hamas. "The snake's head must be cut off ... by stopping supplies to them of electricity, fuel and food," he said.
Maybe because food was brought up, I drifted toward the refreshments area, but nothing was left. Every piece of pastry and bread had been snatched up. All of the soda bottles had been drained. There was only a plastic plate and a greasy white tablecloth remaining.
Next came Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar, the only person wearing a tie. The moderator praised Sa'ar for agreeing to meet him about some issue at his house rather than his office.
Sa'ar's adviser sat next to him, seemingly suffering from the evening's events. Sa'ar also had a presentation. I somehow pitied him and whispered to his advisor that this was a mistake, but the adviser disappeared.
The noise was intense. "A little respect ... what's wrong with you?" somebody shouted.
Cleverly, Sa'ar made sure the lights were turned down so the audience could concentrate on his achievements at the ministry. Then came a speech in which he attacked Kadima leader Shaul Mofaz - the traitor. "That's strong stuff," someone said to the advisor on the attack on Mofaz. "It's going viral on the Internet," the advisor replied.
After the presentation they tried to turn the lights back on, but it took some time and Sa'ar began his address in the dark. "We made a change in the Education Ministry from the Nakba to renewing the focus on Zionist values," he said.
After him, MK Haim Katz spoke at length; in the end someone suggested that he will be a minister in the next government. Katz smiled politely.
Then it was the turn of the "Four Musketeers," as the moderator called them. I assume that this shows the seniority of a popular MK like Haim Katz over a minister like Avi Dichter, whose speech was limited to one minute.
"When Likud was at a low point, they were there," the moderator said, comparing the righteous to the newly religious. Dichter spoke between MKs who had transferred from Kadima and candidates like accountant Shimon Sarel from Haifa, who complained that there are no accountants in the Knesset. He suggested turning Israel into a country of small cantons.
Meanwhile, the handsome pilot Yoav Kish, dubbed "Likud's pilot," addressed the ongoing rocket fire from Gaza by saying, "What is happening in the South must be stopped from the Knesset or from the air."
Like Dichter, Yulia Shamalov Berkovich was busy shaking off her Kadima past. "I feel like the ugly duckling," she said. "The one who everyone thinks is ugly and then turns out to be a swan. Likud is full of swans - and the biggest one is Yisrael Katz."