Netanyahu Backs Former Confidant, Embroiled in Bribery Case, in Likud Primary

Ex-bureau chief David Sharan, suspected of receiving millions for promoting a $2b deal to purchase German submarines, is one of many vying for top spots ■ Who to watch for in Tuesday's vote?

File photo: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and bureau chief David Sharan attend a weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, February 21, 2016.
Emil Salman

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced Sunday that he was backing his former bureau chief David Sharan, suspected of accepting bribes in a high-profile corruption case, for the Tel Aviv district ticket in the Likud primary, set for Tuesday, ahead of the April 9 general election.

Sharan is suspected of receiving 130 million shekels (about $36 million) from the Israeli representative for the German corporation ThyssenKrupp in exchange for promoting a contested $2 billion deal to purchase submarines for the Israeli navy. His case has been transferred to the State Prosecutor’s Office and awaits final decision on indictments.

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In November, the Israel Police recommended Sharan, as well as former navy chief Eliezer Marom and two other ex-navy generals, be indicted for bribery in the case. The police also announced it has found sufficient evidence to charge Netanyahu's lawyer and confidant, David Shimron, with facilitating bribery, but not the prime minister's other attorney, Isaac Molho. Michael Ganor, the submarine maker's former representative in Israel, has turned state's witness in the case.

Sharan is running for 29th spot on the Likud ticket, reserved for the Tel Aviv district representative. This spot, however, could be pushed down should Netanyahu's request to grant him two extra personal picks on the Likud slate, in a bid to "increase our chances of victory," be accepted by the Likud Central Committee.

Crowded race to the top

Some 120,000 party members will be eligible to vote in the Likud primaries, at any of 131 polling stations throughout Israel. Unlike previous campaigns, this year's primary is relatively calm and attracts little media attention, seeing as Netanyahu has the ultimate say in appointments and minor changes to slot allocation aren't expected to make much of a difference to candidates.

But still, some intriguing questions remain ahead of the vote, such as who will take first place, meaning will be second on the Likud ticket after Netanyahu. Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan did so in the previous primary, and came in second in the one before that. But Likud sources estimate he won't stay in the lead this time, after a very problematic term as minister, in the eyes of Likud members, tainted by his frustration over his inability to explain that he had no power to stop the police commissioner from investigating Netanyahu's corruption cases.

File photo: Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan and Israel Police Commissioner Roni Alsheich attend a ceremony in Jerusalem, September 5, 2018.
Olivier Fitoussi

Moreover, the race to the top is crowded – Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev is there, along with Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein. Regev has many fans in some sectors of Likud, but sparks antagonism among others, who are actively working against her. Edelstein, on his part, believes his respectable image among party members would serve him well.

The top 10 slots are bound to look quite different from the last primary, as three veteran Likud MKs are no longer there. Silvan Shalom resigned from the Knesset over allegations of sexual harassment, former Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon quit Likud and Danny Danon, in a move that shocked his colleagues, wants to extend his stay in New York as ambassador to the United Nations and not run for a Knesset seat.

The place of Environmental Protection Minister Zeev Elkin, who also serves as minister of Jerusalem affairs and heritage, among the party's top 10 is also unclear. His failure in the Jerusalem mayoral election put him on the wrong side of many Likud officials, which seem to have put the brakes on his so far meteoric political rise.

Labor Minister Haim Katz, who didn't do well in the previous primary, would very much like to see himself make his way to the top 10, where Social Equality Ministry Gila Gamliel and popular MK David Bitan will probably end up.

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However, one of the names that attract the most attention in the political bloodbath that is the Likud primary is former minister Gideon Sa'ar, who is recovering from a four-year hiatus following a public spat with Netanyahu. Sa'ar is crisscrossing the country, appearing at Likud rallies in a bid to position himself as the analytical leadership material the party needs, but senior party officials are divided over whether his dispute with Netanyahu hurt his candidacy or in fact helped it.

Housing and Construction Minister Yoav Galant, who only recently moved to Likud from Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon's Kulanu, had been waiting for this moment for about three years. He has already made frequent appearances at Likud rallies and Netanyahu is giving him a major push.

Former Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat is considered the weakest of these three. Although he has invested millions of shekels of his own money in his campaign expecting to easily secure a top-10 spot, the party's response to him has been lukewarm.

Women, minorities vie for spots

Representing the Druze community in the Knesset, Communications Minister Ayoub Kara also fulfilled his dream to become a minister. But after four terms as Knesset member, Kara might be one of some eight Likud MKs expected to go home after the election.

So far, he has entered the Knesset in the Likud slot reserved for minorities, and had been allowed to run for that slot even as a sitting MK. This time, for reasons that remain unclear and despite his loyal flattery of Netanyahu, the prime minister took this privilege from Kara. In the previous primary he got only 13,000 votes, far below the 20,800 needed to secure a spot on the party's ticket, and Likud officials believe he doesn't stand a real chance to carry on to the next Knesset.

Two spots are reserved for new female candidates: slot number 25, likely to make it to the Knesset after April, and the less likely number 31. Front-runners include sitting MK Osnat Mark, who qualifies for the spot since she has served less than six months, and is supported by coalition whip David Amsalem; Kati Sheetrit, a veteran activist and former aide to Sa'ar and Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz; lobbyist Keren Barak; Heidi Mozes, the now-secular daughter of ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism MK Eliezer Mozes, and anti-immigration activist May Golan.