Netanyahu Gets His Way as Likud Votes to Move Up Leadership Race

‘Changing the rules of the game is not fair,’ says ex-minister Gideon Sa’ar, who will find it harder to run against Netanyahu if the date is moved up.

Ofer Vaknin

Likud Central Committee members on Wednesday voted to approve Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's proposal to move up the date of the party’s leadership race from January 6 to December 31 — the same day the party is due to vote on the composition of its slate for the March Knesset election.

Moving up the date of the leadership vote by a week is intended to make it harder for former interior minister Gideon Sa’ar, a possible contender, to run, say party sources. Sa'ar has until Sunday to decide whether to challenge Netanyahu's leadership.

Holding the two elections simultaneously also ensures greater voter turnout, which should work in Netanyahu's favor. 

“All changes in the rules of the game...are not fair,” said Sa’ar after voting on Wednesday. “The date of the primaries was already set back on October 6 and there is no reason to change it now,” added Sa’ar, a popular minister who shocked party members by resigning in September.

In a controversial move on Tuesday, Likud Central Committee chairman Danny Danon, who is challenging Netanyahu as leader of the party, granted the prime minister’s request to have Wednesday’s vote held by secret ballot at polling stations around the country. Central Committee members, led by Moshe Feiglin, who is also challenging Netanyahu as party leader, petitioned the internal party court this morning seeking an order reversing the decision, but the court denied the request and ordered the vote to go ahead. 

If Sa’ar were to be successful in his party leadership bid, it could put him in a position to be elected prime minister in March. Sa’ar has managed to sow uncertainty among the party’s activists and Knesset members about his intentions. Central Committee members have spoken of major efforts to lay the groundwork for Sa’ar’s candidacy, including a mass effort to recruit supporters and meticulous polling to gauge his chances.

On the other hand, associates of Sa’ar say they don’t think he intends to challenge the prime minister for the party’s leadership and is merely seeking to put the prime minister under pressure. Sa’ar would not run, one senior Likud Knesset member who is considered close to the former interior minister flatly predicted on Tuesday. “That’s a fact,” the Knesset member said. “It’s true that Sa’ar is recruiting supporters and doing polling, and has even told his friends that he intends to establish a [campaign] headquarters, but it’s clear to him that it’s a process that can only damage his image at this stage and that his chances of beating Netanyahu in internal [party] elections are not great.”

Surprisingly, Sa’ar’s name barely came up at a Central Committee meeting on Tuesday in the West Bank settlement of Ariel.

Sa’ar is expected to draw most of his support from people who would otherwise have voted for Netanyahu, meaning his entry into the race would have relatively little effect on Netanyahu’s two declared challengers, Feiglin and Danon.

Sa’ar faces a dilemma. On the one hand, a decision to move up the party vote, combined with Netanyahu’s weakened standing in his own party, could enable Sa’ar to unseat the prime minister, making him the leader of the right wing in a few days. The risks, on the other hand, are huge and could spell the end of Sa’ar’s political career if he were to fail. At that point, he wouldn’t simply be able to go home but would instead have to bide his time as a member of a Knesset faction headed by Netanyahu. That’s a situation that he sought to avoid just a month ago when he announced that he was stepping out of politics.

Furthermore, if he were to beat Netanyahu in the party vote but not get elected prime minister, the Likud party would settle scores with him after the March election and ruin his chances for another bid in the next several years. Sa’ar also has to decide if he can manage an effective campaign in such a short time frame, if he can raise the amount of money needed to mount a respectable campaign, and if he is prepared to reconsider his decision to take a time-out from politics to spend more time at home.

Netanyahu’s proposal for the party list

Netanyahu’s proposal is wide-ranging and would give him authority to hand-pick the candidates in the 11th and 23rd spots on the slate. It would also reserve a slot — the 15th — for a woman on the list. Under the proposal, regional party representation would only be included from the 16th spot and lower, on a staggered basis, along with national representatives.

The ranking of Knesset candidates on the list is important in Israel’s electoral system because parties are awarded seats in the Knesset based on the proportion of the vote that they get and seats are filled from the top of the slate. Netanyahu’s plan would likely mean that at least one current Likud Knesset member would not be ranked high enough to be assured re-election when the country goes to the polls on March 17.