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The Internal Battles Deciding the Likud Primary’s Outcome — and the Party's Future

The outcome of the party's primary election will not only determine the make-up of the largest party in Israel, but it will also answer one crucial question: Which is stronger, Netanyahu or the Likud members?

Ravit Hecht
Ravit Hecht
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Likud party head Benjamin Netanyahu.
Likud party head Benjamin Netanyahu.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz
Ravit Hecht
Ravit Hecht

The results of the Likud primary on Wednesday, in which 140,000 party members were eligible to participate, will be decided by who (or what) is stronger as measured by a host of factors.

Except for Knesset member Yariv Levin, who enjoys almost wall-to-wall support in the party, the rest of the candidates are divided into camps locked in power struggles with one another. The drama that played out right before the primary, when party leader Benjamin Netanyahu came out against the candidacy of David Laniado because of his criminal past, is just a taste of the icing on the grand cake that is the Likud primary. Here are the key issues that will decide the outcome.

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MK Galit Distel Atbaryan.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Is social media transforming old school politics?

Who has an edge in the 21st century? Is it those who rely on social media and media exposure? Or those chosen by traditional back-room deals, wheeler-dealers in the branches, free tickets to events and visits to the sick? Or, in the language of primary elections, will “free”, uncommitted voters prevail over the voters who joined the party as part of deals backing certain candidates.

The stars of the social media route are MK Galit Distel Atbaryan and journalist Boaz Bismuth, the latter a favorite among Likudniks who watch Channel 12’s Friday night news show and being promoted by Netanyahu. The stars of the backroom are MKs Haim Katz and David Bitan. Netanyahu, who wants to strengthen the power of uncommitted free voters, extended the opening hours at the polls.

Journalist Boaz Bismuth, on Wednesday.Credit: Moti Milrod

The new and old Likud

Is the Likud still created in the image of Netanyahu, in which people like MKs David Amsalem, Miri Regev, David Bitan and Miki Zohar emerged as leaders of the first order? Or is the Likud being taken over by those that Netanyahu would like to showcase in the November election, including MKs Avi Dichter, Amir Ohana, Uzi Dayan, journalist Erez Tadmor and Boaz Bismuth?

Likud's war on the justice system

Will the party be dominated by those who seek to demolish the High Court of Justice or will it be characterized by the party’s more statesmanlike candidates? Not for nothing did Distel Atbaryan, who is expected to leap the primary hurdles to a reserved place on the list, decide to kickstart the day of the primary by accompanying journalist Eli Tzipori to the police station, where he was questioned for allegedly harassing Hadas Klein, a prosecution witness in the Netanyahu trial, and to deliver a magnificent “j’accuse” speech. Anyone who wants to climb the ladder in Likud these days knows that the way up involves unrestrained incitement against the legal system and hyperbolic vitriol.

For Ohana, who trolled the legal system in an unprecedented way when he was justice minister, this tactic is expected to yield impressive results, maybe even a place among the first five names on the list. The same applies to the candidate most likely to star when Wednesday’s primary results are announced: Levin, the father of all hatred for the courts, who tarnished its name even at a time when Netanyahu was still a friend of Israel’s judges.

MK Amir Ohana, on Wednesday.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

“Restrained” candidates, like Gilad Sharon and MK Ofir Akunis, or those who focus on other issues, like the social policy-minded lawmaker Ofir Katz, find it much harder to penetrate the hearts and minds of the Likud masses. Conventional wisdom holds that Netanyahu uses these loyal Likud foot soldiers to undercut the legal proceedings he’s contending with. But it’s a quid pro quo: They enthusiastically use his popularity and the demonization of the prosecution to advance their own careers.

Likud's grassroots battles

Many criticize Likudniks for following Netanyahu like a herd of bleating sheep, without understanding or discretion. But the Likud primary proves that when it isn’t a matter of keeping a united front against outside threats against their leader, some Likud activists do indeed oppose Netanyahu.

Another question that this election will decide: The Likud grassroots or Netanyahu? The answer is actually not as simple as one might think.

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