Loyalty to Netanyahu pays off for Likud's primary hopefuls

POLITICAL AFFAIRS: What does a changing Likud list mean for opposition head Benjamin Netanyahu?

 A LIKUD polling station in Jerusalem on Wednesday (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
A LIKUD polling station in Jerusalem on Wednesday
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

A large screen at the Likud Party primary headquarters at Expo Tel Aviv on Wednesday night repeatedly showed MK Yariv Levin shouting at Labor Party Arab-Israeli MK Ibtisam Mara’ana-Menuhin.

Meanwhile, at the party’s headquarters at the Jerusalem International Convention Center, a blue balloon the size of a small car featured MK Shlomo Karhi next to Benjamin Netanyahu, with the slogan “Netanyahu needs a strong Karhi.” Nearby, Miri Regev’s banner listed “loyal” as one of her prominent character traits.

Regardless of the visual distractions, the 2022 primary election strengthened a trend that has been going on for years in the Likud. The older, “statesmanlike” MKs are being pushed further and further out of the picture, while the younger, more boisterous, more aggressive MKs are taking their places.

The younger MKs, of course, are also much more outspoken about a trait that has become a necessary component for anyone to make it in the Likud: loyalty to the leader.

Netanyahu: Aiming for the top with a loyal team

CURRENT MINISTER-without-Portfolio Tzachi Hanegbi catches the ear of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Knesset in 2016. (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH 90)CURRENT MINISTER-without-Portfolio Tzachi Hanegbi catches the ear of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Knesset in 2016. (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH 90)

At many times over the past year, there seemed to be a chance that Netanyahu might be on his last dance. His bloc sat in the opposition and had very little power other than endless filibusters in the plenum and boycotts of the Knesset committees; Netanyahu reportedly entertained a plea deal bargain in which he would leave politics; UTJ’s Moshe Gafni made noises about the haredi bloc being fed up with the opposition leader, and more.

The primary on Wednesday proved that not only will Netanyahu have another shot at regaining the lead of the country, but he will be doing it with a nastier, more aggressive, and more loyal team than ever before – and one strongly dedicated to reforming Israel’s legal system. This may not end up playing out in his favor, since it may distance some voters from the “soft Right.” But if anyone had any doubts about Netanyahu’s grip on the party, they probably do not anymore.

Netanyahu himself, however, seems worried. He uncharacteristically ordered all of the current Likud MKs not to be interviewed as the primary progressed on Wednesday, and as of Thursday afternoon said nothing on social media. He knows that some of his supporters may have a hard time stomaching the new list, and that some population groups are underrepresented. There is only one woman in the top 17, and only two in the top 20, and there are zero non-Jews or representatives of an Israeli minority in a realistic part of the list.

The Israeli Left's furor with the Likud

Indeed, the Left made the most noise on Thursday, while the Likud maintained radio silence until the final results were in.

“The Likud list is a severe blow to women in Israel,” new Labor primary winner MK Naama Lazimi wrote on Twitter. “It’s not enough that they (Kisch) tried in the last Knesset to thwart a law to prevent domestic violence, now they present a list with only one woman in every ten where one of them represented rapists and humiliated rape victims.”

“It’s not enough that they (Kisch) tried in the last Knesset to thwart a law to prevent domestic violence, now they present a list with only one woman in every ten where one of them represented rapists and humiliated rape victims.”

Labor MK Naama Lazimi

“There is one side of the map that cares about equality and women’s rights, and there is a side that represents oppression of women,” she wrote.

Labor MK Gilad Kariv also lashed out on Twitter.

“The Likud list is an extreme and chauvinist list that symbolizes the party’s servitude to Netanyahu’s personal legal problems, and the alliance it made with the Kahanists. This is a list that will eliminate the remnants of statesmanship that still remain in Begin and Shamir’s party. Today more than ever it is clear why Netanyahu and his partners must not be allowed to return to the leadership of the country!” Kariv wrote.

Meretz leader candidate Zehava Gal-On simply wrote: “Goodbye Likud. Welcome to the party of the Bibistim [Netanyahu supporters].”

Where is the Likud Party heading?

NETANYAHU MAY be worried, and his silence may prove damaging. But a look at the performances of Likud MKs in the last three Likud primaries – in 2015, 2019 and this week – is enough to show a clear trend in which direction the party is headed. The three criminal cases against Netanyahu deal with occurrences during the years 2012-2017. Police investigations began in January 2017. Many factors have led the Likud to where it is today, but Netanyahu’s cases are assuredly part of them.

Levin, the primary winner, finished sixth in the 2019 primary, and 12th in 2015. He is considered one of Netanyahu’s closest confidants and a vocal critic of the legal system. While Netanyahu routinely encouraged his MKs to heckle rival MKs in the Knesset plenum, he prefers those closest to him to be discreet. Levin is a perfect example, and his climb to the top of the Likud is proof of this.

This does not detract from his many accomplishments. Levin was a signatory MK on a whopping 38 laws in the 19th Knesset (between 2015 and 2019), and even managed to pass or amend a number of Basic Laws – including being an initiator of the Nation-State Law and the Referendum Law, which requires that a referendum be held on any diplomatic agreement that includes giving up land.

The No. 2 finisher, Eli Cohen, was not even a member of Likud until the second election of the current cycle in 2019. He joined politics as part of former finance minister Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu Party and remained a part of it until it officially dissolved into the Likud. Wednesday was his first primary election. In all previous elections he was Netanyahu’s personal choice.

Cohen also has an impressive record. He served as economy and industry minister, intelligence minister and as a member of the security cabinet. Still, the leap from being parachuted into the list to finishing second is large. His popularity increased over the past year for his effective TV performances and speeches in the Knesset, in which he lashed out at the coalition and defended Netanyahu as if his life depended on it.

The list goes on. Ex-general Yoav Gallant moved up from No. 7 in 2019 to No. 3 this time around. Gallant, while one of the quietest MKs in the Likud, is a staunch Netanyahu supporter and not seen as a threat. He is skilled at staying behind the scenes and not making too many enemies.

Dudi “break the Left’s bones” Amsalem moved up from 17th to fourth; Netanyahu protégé’ Amir Ohana – author of the “State Attorney’s Office within the State Attorney’s Office” conspiracy theory – moved up from 18th to fifth; Yoav Kisch from 19th to sixth; Miki Zohar from 21st to 10th; Shlomo Karhi, formerly 27th on the list and representative of the Negev region, finished 12th; Galit Distal Atbaryan, a vociferous defender of Netanyahu and his first personal choice in the last election, came in a respectable 18th.

Likud primary: The losers

THE LOSERS? First and foremost, former Knesset speaker and health minister Yuli Edelstein. Edelstein finished in second place in 2015 and first in 2019. This time around he finished in 15th place. Edelstein was the only person to announce that he would challenge Netanyahu for the Likud premiership, and folded far before putting up any kind of fight.

Other Likud candidates seen as threats to Netanyahu, with strong voter bases and backing from some organized groups, either stayed put or lost significantly.

MK Nir Barkat, perhaps Netanyahu’s most formidable challenger, who has invested deeply in building a broader base, moved up just one spot, from eighth to seventh. Gila Gamliel went from ninth to 21st. Another formidable Netanyahu challenger, MK Israel Katz, fell from third in 2015 and second in 2019 to 11th this time. And perhaps most remarkably, 30-year Knesset veteran Tzachi Hanegbi went from eighth in 2015 to 13th in 2019 to 25th this time.

These are all the finishing places in bare votes. With Netanyahu occupying the No. 1 seat and a number of other spots reserved for regional representatives and “special” spots such as a new woman (25) and an immigrant (33), the final tally has Katz as No. 12 on the Knesset list, Edelstein as No. 18, Gamliel as No. 30, and Hanegbi an astonishing No. 46 on the list – effectively meaning he will be going home.

But for Netanyahu, this primary was a resounding win. He proved that he still has complete control of the Likud and that his renowned political prowess is as sharp as ever. Die-hard Netanyahu fans will celebrate over the weekend.

But time will tell whether the vote will attract anyone who was not already planning on voting Likud, or distance voters who feel the party is no longer their home.