Alliances, Deals and the Day After Netanyahu: Israel's Likud Party Set for Primary Election

Likud's primary election will be held next week, and party sources expect a third of its current lawmakers to find themselves out of a job after Israel's November 1 election

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Netanyahu and MK Ofir Akunis on the Knesset floor.
Netanyahu and MK Ofir Akunis on the Knesset floor.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Some 135,000 party members are eligible to vote in Wednesday’s Likud primary, ahead of the November general election. The vote for party chair was canceled after no one challenged the incumbent, former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Members can choose 12 candidates for Knesset from the “regular,” nationwide slate. The ticket will also include first-time prospective legislators representing geographic districts. They will push to the bottom of the ticket the previous district representatives, who may now run only for the more competitive national slate. That means some current lawmakers will be left off the slate entirely.

Up to 25 incumbents can be in the top 35 places on the list, assuming that Netanyahu makes use of his discretionary seats and that no sitting lawmakers are pushed down the list by the places reserved for women and new immigrants. In addition to the newcomers from the regional spots, there are candidates with good chances of being elected to high spots on the national list. Among the names being churned in the rumor mill – former lawmaker Danny Danon, who has been building up his power over the past year; former journalist Boaz Bismuth; Ariel Sharon’s son Gilad Sharon and former Netanyahu economic advisor Avi Simchon. Party insiders say it is not inconceivable that one-third of Likud lawmakers will find themselves out of a job after the election.

Likud’s primary system gives birth to the infamous “deals” – agreements between candidates and their supporters who sign pacts of mutual support. The fact that each voter can vote for 12 candidates allows the candidates to ally in blocs. Thus, one significant axis in the current campaign is between Yisrael Katz, Haim Katz, and David Bitan. Another deal between Yisrael Katz and Bitan includes David Amsalem, Bitan’s friend. The three work together, and their supporters have all been asked to vote for the others as well. They are not the only ones, of course, and almost all the candidates make pacts.

However, many Likud candidates view the negative deals as more important than the positive ones. A negative deal is made against a given candidate, as the supporters of other candidates are asked not to vote for that person. These ‘negative deals’ are relevant mostly to those wishing to rank high in the top ten, so the assumption is that the least hated candidate stands the best chance to finish first in the primaries.

Until recently, Yariv Levin was considered “least hated” in Likud. Levin is known for his loyalty and closeness to Netanyahu, has declared in private talks that he has no desire to be Likud chair, and therefore enjoys a lack of opposition in the movement. But lately things have changed. According to Likud sources, Yisrael Katz is operating against Levin due to the impression that Levin does have leadership aspirations. Lawmaker Eli Cohen, say the sources, also often attacks Levin lately due to his desire to compete with him for the top spot (second overall) on the list.

Several Likud sources tried to sketch the map of main tensions, producing the “negative deals,” or “hit lists,” as they are known. Thus, Yisrael Katz and David Bitan operate against Nir Barkat and vice-versa; Miri Regev against Gila Gamliel and Galit Distal Atbaryan against Regev – all according to party sources. And these are of course only some of the intrigues, with virtually every candidate featuring on someone else’s “hit list”.

Yuli Edelstein is very likely to take a hit in the primary, after announcing his intention to challenge Netanyahu, before backing down. He is drawing a lot of fire – not only from fellow lawmakers in the form of hit lists, but also, and mainly, from Netanyahu’s many supporters in the movement. Edelstein has finished first in the primary more than once. Current estimates are that he is unlikely to repeat the feat. Others who have picked up enemies over the past few months and are expected to struggle to retain their places on the slate are Gamliel, Regev and Ofir Akunis, who according to sources have fallen afoul of both their fellow lawmakers and party pressure groups.

Those seen as less hated, and whose chances of improving their internal ranking seem reasonable are mostly Levin (despite his spat with Israel Katz,) Cohen, Amir Ohana and “consensus” candidates such as Avi Dichter and Yoav Gallant. However, it is very difficult to predict the results of Likud primaries, not only because of the lack of polling but also because of the system giving 12 spots per voter. Results that seem likely right now can prove utterly wrong by the time the polls close.

As mentioned above, apart from the national list there are also the regional representatives. According to the party’s decision, championed by Netanyahu, the regional delegates will be chosen by all registered party members in the given region, and not by the Likud Central Committee. This was opposed by the Katz-Katz-Bitan axis, which sought to get as many of their cohorts as possible elected through the regional seats, due to the extensive power the three combined wield in the districts.

Naturally, the three wish to fortify their position in the party, but this is doubly and triply true for this election, due to the growing realization that the fight for Likud leadership the day after Netanyahu is drawing nearer. According to several senior lawmakers, this fight will become particularly relevant should Netanyahu fail to form a government after November 1. By placing a large number of new members in the Knesset, Yisrael Katz could create an informal “camp,” to serve as a powerful bas in the party’s institutions and without. As for now, the ”camps” in Likud, and even the primary alliances, hold little weight, absent a run against Netanyahu. But all major actors in the party have been long preparing for the contest of the ”day after.”

Netanyahu himself is highly interested in shaping the slate, as part of his overall election strategy. He will try again to draw votes from the “soft right” which does not vote for him. It was to draw candidates relevant to these audiences that Netanyahu supported the change in the method for selecting the regional candidates, which is making it harder for some candidates, some of whom have become infamous for their legal entanglements, to win these seats. Netanyahu also holds three discretionary slots in so-called realistic spots on the list, that is, likely to be elected: 14, 16, and 28. He won’t hesitate to use these seats to draw new voters to the party, but estimates are that he will do so only after the primary.

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