Decision day in Likud: Sa’ar’s outcome a test of Netanyahu’s power

‘Rivlin waiting until after election to deny my father the mission of forming gov’t and to give it to his good friend Gideon Sa’ar,’ says Yair Netanyahu.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and Gideon Sa'ar  (photo credit: REUTERS)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and Gideon Sa'ar
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Polls are set to open across the country today for nearly 120,000 eligible Likud voters to participate in the party’s primary and determine its list for the next Knesset.
Some of the major contenders for the top five are Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan – who reached first place last time, Transportation Minister Israel Katz, Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein and Culture Minister Miri Regev, among others.
The most embattled candidate is Gideon Sa’ar, the former interior and education minister who has returned after a four-year break from politics, to the open dismay of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Netanyahu has made it known that he does not want Sa’ar to reach the top of the Likud list, meaning to be number two after the prime minister, a feat that he has achieved in past primaries. The reasoning is that if Sa’ar is not in first place, he cannot present himself as an alternative candidate for the premiership, which Netanyahu has long maintained that Sa’ar is conspiring to do.
The prime minister recycled his theory – that Sa’ar seeks to be appointed prime minister after the elections instead of him because of the expected corruption charges against Netanyahu – on the inaugural episode of “Likud TV,” a campaign webcast, this week.
The prime minister’s son Yair Netanyahu joined in the Sa’ar-bashing with a Monday evening Facebook post, saying: “It’s no wonder that Channels 12 and 13 and the rest of the media glorifies and praises Gideon Sa’ar. They know who’s on their side. [President Reuven] ‘Rubi’ Rivlin is just waiting until after the election to refuse to give my father the mission of forming the government, even if the Likud wins, and to give it to his good friend Gideon Sa’ar instead. We won’t let them!”
Sa’ar defended himself on all of Israel’s major television and radio stations.
“It’s a false tale,” Sa’ar told Channel 12 News. “It started with a conspiracy between me and the president, then that I was planning it with members of the coalition, and now it’s that I’m planning it with Likud members – all anonymous. Give me names, let me confront it.”
Sa’ar vowed that he will only seek to be prime minister if he will be elected leader of Likud, that he is a “loyal soldier of the Likud” and that he stands behind Netanyahu in the elections.
“I respect the prime minister… but that shouldn’t allow him to sully my good name,” he said. “He is doing to me what he hates, a kind of media attack. I would expect someone who feels persecuted not to persecute others.”
The bad blood between Sa’ar and Netanyahu hasn’t stopped the former from being able to raise serious funds for his campaign. His top donors include Isaac Appelbaum of Auckland with NIS 120,000, as well as Nissan Shalom and Amnon Shahal of New York and Kerry Proper of Massachusetts, who donated NIS 50,000 each. The law no longer permits incumbent MKs to raise funds for primary campaigns, with the state granting them NIS 300,000 each, but Sa’ar is not an MK. Nor is former Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat, who is independently wealthy and donated NIS 200,000 to himself.
Netanyahu has repeatedly said that he backs all of the Likud’s current Knesset members, but he has specifically and publicly thrown his support behind Edelstein and Tel Aviv District candidate David Sharan, Netanyahu’s former chief of staff and a suspect in the “submarines affair,” who police have recommended to indict on various corruption charges. Netanyahu also made phone calls advocating for Tourism Minister Yariv Levin, Channel 12 reported; his spokesman would neither confirm or deny the report.
Tuesday’s primary will have nearly 23,000 more eligible voters than the last one, and the distribution of the new votes sheds light on the current makeup of the Likud.
The district with the most growth is Tel Aviv, which also includes the cities of Holon and Bat Yam, with over 3,000 new voters, bringing it to 11,656. This is a likely indicator of the power of the New Likudniks – a group seeking to make the party more moderate – which is significant, but far less than what the group has claimed.
On Monday, the High Court of Justice rejected a petition by the New Likudniks and MKs Tzachi Hanegbi and Yehudah Glick, who they support, among others, to reinstate 1,000 members of the party thrown out on grounds that they oppose the party’s constitution.
The Judea and Samaria District lost 800 members since the last election, making it the smallest, with 6,100 members. Some in the Likud see this as a result of former MK Moshe Feiglin forming his own party, Zehut. The large settlements of Ma’aleh Adumim, Betar Illit and Givat Ze’ev are in the Jerusalem district, making Judea and Samaria a less populous area for the party.
But that has not stopped numerous interest groups in the West Bank to release lists of recommended candidates. Some of the popular ones for settler groups are Barkat, Edelstein, Jerusalem Affairs Minister Ze’ev Elkin, Erdan, Regev and Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely.
Labor and Social Services Minister Haim Katz released his list on Monday, as well. As the former head of the Israel Aerospace Industry’s union (IAI), he is thought to have thousands of IAI workers voting according to his recommendations. They include Edelstein, Erdan, Hotovely, Sa’ar, and Regev, as well as coalition chairman David Amsalem and MKs David Bitan, Avraham Neguise and Yoav Kisch.
Also going to a vote Tuesday is Netanyahu’s proposal to allow him to appoint candidates to the 21, 28 and 36 place on the Likud’s list for the next Knesset. The prime minister said in a video sent to all Likud members Monday that he seeks this power in order to allow mergers between the Likud and other parties in the event that more center-left parties join forces. The New Right and Bayit Yehudi have denied that they seek to run together with the Likud.
Tekuma leader Bezalel Smotrich suggested that the Likud run with radical right-wing party Otzma Yehudit, led by disciples of Rabbi Meir Kahane, who was banned from running for the Knesset due to racist incitement.
Netanyahu had previously called for Bayit Yehudi and Tkuma to merge with Otzma, but Smotrich argued that “they are much better suited to the political culture and the variety that already exists in the Likud, anyway.”