As this is being written, over 90 percent of the votes have been counted and, barring any major upsets, the top four candidates will all be Likudniks who have recently clashed with the prime minister.
In first place (after Netanyahu himself, who as Likud leader will be number one) is Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, who clashed with Netanyahu last year when he unsuccessfully tried to stop him usurping the speaker’s traditional role of making the main speech at the national Independence Day event.
A few dozen votes behind Edelstein, and still with a chance of overtaking him, is Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz, who Netanyahu has accused of undermining him in various ways – including by scheduling major infrastructure work on Shabbat, thus jeopardizing the governing coalition with the ultra-Orthodox parties.
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Gideon Sa’ar came third, but in light of the contract Netanyahu publicly put out on him this week – using Likud’s official campaign channel on Facebook to accuse the former interior minister of conspiring with President Reuven Rivlin to depose him – third is as good as first. Netanyahu did everything in his power to push Sa’ar far down the list, and failed.
Number four is Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan (who still has a chance of overtaking Sa’ar), who is blamed by Netanyahu’s inner circle for not doing enough to curb the police investigations against the prime minister.
Edelstein-Katz-Sa’ar-Erdan is exactly the top four Netanyahu did not want to see emerging from the primary. His ultra-loyalists only look set to finish fifth and eighth, respectively: Culture Minister Miri Regev, despite her pouncing on every microphone to viciously attack the Netanyahu family’s critics; and Tourism Minister Yariv Levin, who Netanyahu worked hard to push higher.
Netanyahu’s chief enforcers in the Knesset, the current and former coalition whips David Amsalem and David Bitan, are way down the list, barely holding onto their seats. And Knesset House Committee Chairman Miki Zohar, who was prepared to abuse his position to shield Netanyahu and delay votes on an early election, will likley not be in the next Knesset.
No one in Likud is openly challenging Netanyahu’s leadership, yet, but there was a clear message from the near-70,000 party members who voted in the primary: They are making their own choices over who they want to see leading Likud in the future, and Netanyahu will not dictate to them. They’re not showing him the door quite yet, but they are preparing for his departure.
The gaps between the top eight on the Likud slate are relatively small. In addition to Netanyahu’s four rivals and his two standard-bearers, two newcomers established their potential leadership credentials. Former Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat came sixth, while Immigrant Absorption Minister Yoav Gallant – who defected from Kulanu in December and is now the only general on Likud’s ticket – is in seventh. The rest languish behind.
This is the slate of seven men and one woman who will fight for the Likud leadership and candidacy for prime minister – perhaps in a matter of months if Netanyahu either loses the election or wins but is forced to resign following the almost inevitable indictments.
Edelstein will probably decide that he prefers to drop out and be Likud’s candidate for president, replacing Rivlin in 2021. Of the seven remaining, Katz and Sa’ar must now be regarded as the front-runners. Katz finished higher in the primary, but Sa’ar was fighting a much more difficult Bibi handicap. With Netanyahu gone, many expect him to surge beyond Katz.
Meanwhile, Netanyahu is still here and there’s an election to fight. The consensus among political pundits Wednesday morning was that it’s a “balanced” slate. But will that translate into votes?
Likud’s top 10 (including Netanyahu) has very little variety: two Mizrahi women (Regev and, in 10th spot, Gila Gamliel); one religious man (Edelstein); and seven secular Ashkenazi men with an average age of 57.
Things are not that different further down the list. This looks like an older, more Ashkenazi, a slightly more moderate Likud, with fewer women. It’s the kind of ticket the party’s veteran base has chosen to ensure stability in the post-Netanyahu era, but it’s hard to see who will attract wavering voters on April 9.
To ensure a fifth election victory for Netanyahu, Likud needs to keep hard-right, Mizrahi and religious voters from leaving for Shas, Habayit Hayehudi and Hayamin Hehadash. These parties will still support Netanyahu’s next government, but without their votes Likud may lose its largest-party status to Benny Gantz’s Hosen L'Yisrael – which is also enticing centrist-leaning Likud voters away. There are no centrist figures on the Likud slate to keep them.
If Likud loses more than 100,000 voters to Gantz, it will lose its coalition majority. Preventing voters leaving to the right or the center is now squarely on Netanyahu’s shoulders. The new Likud slate won’t help. It’s all up to him.
The Likud primary results only serve to underline what we already knew. This election isn’t about the parties or ideology. It’s about Netanyahu.