For Likud Primary Campaign, Pledging Loyalty to Netanyahu Is Paramount

At male-dominated party convention in Jerusalem ahead of Tuesday's vote, shoo-ins and hopefuls courted an array of political veterans, amid excitement over local soccer

Likud ministers attend a party convention in Jerusalem, February 3, 2019.
Emil Salman

In the past week, two Jerusalem soccer teams won – Beitar Jerusalem strengthened its position in the Premier League and avoided the danger of demotion to the National League, while Hapoel Katamon ended up in second place in the second-tier league, with a reasonable chance of promotion to the Premier League. For Likud activists who convened Sunday in Jerusalem to hear the senior members of the party prior to the primaries, the exciting news is that next year, after long years of Beitar’s local monopoly in the Premier League, there may be a Jerusalem derby – a local rivalry in the league – once again.

"I want to come to the eastern bleachers with a big sign: 'Katamon, Beitar is waiting for you,'" said Amos Cohen, a Likud Central Committee member. “I’ve been in soccer for 40 years,” he says, “I’m a veteran of Beitar Jerusalem, but without a derby – there’s no soccer. I hope Katamon will be promoted, so there’ll be action.”

Likud activists, however, were concerned that the derby would reach the political playing field too. “If [Benny] Gantz causes a unification of the left, we’re in trouble,” said one. But despite concern about the former Israel Defense Forces chief of staff’s chances, most of the discussions were about the upcoming Likud primaries and the party’s Knesset slate, readying for the April 9 general election.

>> Tuesday’s Likud primary is the first act in palace coup against Netanyahu | Analysis ■ At festival for Netanyahu's party, vociferous calls of faith in Israel's prime minister

The convention of Likud activists in Jerusalem included veterans from the days of the Black Panthers and former Irgun fighters, alongside secular, Haredi and national-religious young people. They argued about who is and isn’t worthy of representing Likud. On the stage were ministers and MKs, and a young Muslim woman from Kafr Manda, Dima Taya, who is eyeing the slot for non-Jews, and who got a friendly reception. For all the conventioneers’ diversity of background, the paucity of women was blatant. About 90 percent of participants were men.

It’s easy to attack the Likud and the primaries, with all its deals and vote contractors, for belligerent ultra-nationalism and blind loyalty to leader Benjamin Netanyahu. But there’s no waving off the Likud’s vitality, with which no party can compete.

Around the tables there was some consensus about the candidates’ chances. The main criterion seemed to be loyalty to Netanyahu. So Miri Regev can relax, and Gideon Sa’ar, who reached the top and abandoned ship and now wants to return, should be worried. “It doesn’t look good,” says Cohen. “The husband of [TV anchor] Geula Even and the man who dared to attack Netanyahu,” adds Yosef Cohen, referring to Sa'ar.

Leaflets spread on a table at a Likud party convention in Jerusalem, February 3, 2019.
Emil Salman

Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein was also accused of insufficient loyalty. One activist mentioned that he’s been opposed to Edelstein since Independence Day, when the speaker tried to prevent the prime minister from giving a speech at the torch-lighting ceremony. Communications Minister Ayoub Kara, whose is thought to have little chance of election, was warmly received, and claimed that everything was okay.

The candidates circulated among the potential voters, seeking their attention. Journalist Naftali Ben Simon reminded them that “the Likud needs strong spokespeople in the media.” Another candidate, who is competing for the immigrant slot, said he wants to support Bibi so people won’t leave the country, and Dima Taya said, “I want to prove that Likud is not a racist party.”

But the guest of honor, whom everyone wanted to approach, was Ofer Ayubi, adviser to Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Leon. Ayubi stood behind a large group of Likud voters, and walked around with a list of 600 names of people who he said listen to him. The list of recommended candidates was not yet closed.

“Erdan is in, Gideon [Sa’ar] I haven’t decided, [Nir] Barkat I haven’t decided.” At the end of the evening Taya invited him to her table, but sitting next to her was Elad Malka, who is competing for the slot for young people in the Likud, and has been Ayubi’s rival since the local elections.

The ministers made sure to be supportive of one another on the stage. They mentioned their achievements and expressed support for the leader. Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, “the minister who will shut the left’s mouth,” called to support Kara. “Ayoub loves the Jews more than they love themselves,” he said of the Druze politician. Erdan also claimed credit that “today you can fire at stone throwers,” and expressed support for Netanyahu. “We’re in a crucial election campaign, look at the attacks against the prime minister.”

Minister Ayoub Kara at a Likud party convention in Jerusalem, February 3, 2019.
Emil Salman

Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz managed simultaneously to flatter Netanyahu and glorify himself. He said that after a secret security consultation, Netanyahu said to him: “Tell me, will you be all right in the primaries? My aides say that you didn’t do enough politicking, I’m concerned not only because of our friendship and for the good of Likud, but because you’re essential for the national security concept because of your philosophical understanding and your thinking out of the box.”

Ayoub added: “Who can question my loyalty? Loyalty that has lasted for 30 years. Just as Jethro was loyal to Moses, I am loyal to our leader, Bibi Netanyahu.”

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