A Blow to Netanyahu in Likud Primary: Archrival Makes Gains, Loyalists Pushed Back

Netanyahu rival Gideon Sa'ar comes in fourth despite prime minister's efforts to oust him

A man leans on a car with campaign posters for Gideon Sa'ar as Likud members vote on February 5, 2019.
Meged Gozani

Benjamin Netanyahu suffered a blow in the Likud primary as he failed to oust archrival Gideon Sa'ar and saw loyalists pushed back on the ticket as he seeks to remain prime minister after the April 9 general election.

>> Israel's ruling party just voted against Netanyahu | Analysis

Sa'ar, a former interior and education minister, has been accused by Netanyahu of undermining the party leader. Sa'ar received the fourth-highest vote count in the ruling party's primary, which took place Tuesday followed by a fuller count Wednesday.

The fourth-place showing puts Sa'ar fifth on the Likud slate; the first spot is reserved for Netanyahu.

Likud list (final results)

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Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein and Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz garnered the most votes, followed by Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan. Then comes Sa'ar, making him fifth on the ticket.    

Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev, an ardent Netanyahu loyalist, will be sixth on the ticket, one slot down from her previous showing. Regev is followed by Immigration Absorption Minister Yoav Gallant, Tourism Minister Yariv Levinanother Netanyahu loyalist–   and former Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat. Then comes Social Equality Minister Gila Gamliel

Knesset members who showed loyalty to Netanyahu amid the corruption investigations against him did not reap the benefits. Nava Boker and Communcations Minister Ayoub Kara are set to say goodbye to the Knesset, with former coalition whip David Bitan coming in 26th on the ticket and Miki Zohar 29th. 

Following Gamliel comes former Pubic Security Minister Avi Dichter, Environmental Protection Minister Zeev Elkin, Science Minister Ofir Akunis, Regional Cooperation Minister Tzachi Hanegbi, Labor Minister Haim Katz, Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely, Strategic and Intelligence Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz, MK David Amsalem, Pinchas Idan and MK Amir Ohana.

Several high-profile Likud lawmakers are expected to fall short of winning a slot on the ticket that would put them in the Knesset: Oren Hazan, Ayoub Kara, Anat Berko, Nurit Koren, Nava Boker and Yehudah Glick.

Counterterrorism expert Berko made headlines in 2016 by saying the Palestinian people could not have existed because the Arabic language does not have a "P" sound. In Arabic, however, Palestine is pronounced "Falastin."

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Kara drew attention in 2017 for announcing that Israel would possess a robot that could kill Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, and later when he vehemently supported the controversial nation-state law, even as many prominent Druze leaders criticized it.

But Hazan sparked the most controversy during his time in the Knesset. In November, he called Meretz MK Ilan Gilon, who uses a wheelchair, "half a man."

Hazan also drew fire for tweeting that he didn't blame Israeli Arab news anchor Lucy Aharish for "seducing a Jewish soul" after she married the Jewish actor Tzachi Halevy.

Also, standing in a line of notables receiving Donald Trump at Ben-Gurion Airport, Hazan put his arm around the U.S. president and took a selfie, a move widely criticized as inappropriate.

In response to the primary results, Netanyahu said he was "very very pleased that Likud voters elected a strong, democratic slate, good for Israel."

He also took a stab at his main general-election rival, former military chief Benny Gantz, the head of the new Hosen L'Yisrael party.

"The problem is that Abu Mazen [Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas]  is pleased as well. Benny Gantz said he would conduct another disengagement in Judea and Samaria, and Abu Mazen wished him luck in the election." 

Sources close to the prime minister said Wednesday that Netanyahu had tried to prevent Sa'ar from winning the primary. On Sunday, Netanyahu, who accused Sa'ar in October of "concocting a subversive trick," said he had been told by a number of people that Sa'ar had approached them to promote his candidacy for prime minister.

Voter turnout stood at 58 percent of 120,000 eligible primary voters, compared with 52 percent in the previous Likud primary.