Likudniks send a message to Netanyahu and (mostly) reject populism

They rejected gimmicks and went for candidates with proven records - even if those are candidates that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu doesn’t like.

Former Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat on Likud primaries results, February 6, 2019 (Courtesy)
The Likud had an impressive showing in its primary this week, showing a clear preference for experienced candidates with proven records, who can lead a strong campaign and help win back voters that may have considered looking elsewhere.
The results of the Likud primaries send a few clear messages as to how the nearly 70,000 voters in the party see its future. They rejected gimmicks and went for candidates with proven records - even if those are candidates that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu doesn’t like.
It turns out that bad blood with Netanyahu won’t kill you in the Likud primaries, as former Likud minister Gideon Sa’ar could tell you from fourth place. After months of Netanyahu spreading conspiracy theories that Sa’ar is attempting a putsch, he still managed to make an impressive political comeback after four years outside of the game. Not impressive enough to make a hostile takeover – which Sa’ar denies wanting anyway – a realistic possibility, but it still shows that Likudniks like Sa’ar, know and approve of his long record of accomplishments as interior and education minister, and don’t take Netanyahu’s active imagination into consideration.
Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein in first place and Transportation Minister Israel Katz in second place also feuded with Netanyahu in the past term, though they at least said they’ve made amends with him and Netanyahu even said he wants Edelstein back.
Netanyahu’s most loyal soldiers – Culture Minister Miri Regev, Tourism Minister Yariv Levin and Energy and Water Minister Yuval Steinitz – came in fifth, sixth and 12th place, respectively. Netanyahu’s candidate in Tel Aviv, his former chief of staff. And current “Submarines Affair” suspect David Sharan lost to Sa’ar aide Michal Shir, but his preferred candidate in the Negev, Shlomo Karai, won.
There was at least one person who Netanyahu wanted out of the Knesset who won’t be making it back: Communications Minister Ayoub Kara. But that could be due to his own foibles and not just Netanyahu’s preferences. After all, Kara has done things like boast about killer robots, reveal state secrets about aid to Syrian rebels, and almost leave his staff stranded in Dubai. Which brings us to the next message Likud members sent: Candidates known mostly for stirring up scandals and shouting insults did not do well this time.
Several MKs who could be considered populists did make it in, but their placement shows that shouting, personal insults and bullying behavior does not make much of an impression on Likudniks. Culture Minister Miri Regev came in an impressive fifth place, but four years of endless controversies, spats with fellow MKs and recipients of her ministry’s benefits, and headlines bragging about not reading classic literature didn’t improve her standing at all since the last primary. The “Davids” – as sketch comedy show Eretz Nehederet calls coalition chairman David Amsalem and his predecessor in the position David Bitan – will also likely get back into the Knesset, but fell far behind some newcomers and freshman Amir Ohana, who thus far has had a career free of gimmicks and name-calling.
And quite a few of the most scandal-prone backbenchers will not be back in the next Knesset. The best known is probably Oren Hazan, who was found to have engaged in pimping and drug-dealing while working at a casino in Bulgaria, and went on to harass many of his colleagues. Hardly a day went by without another Hazan scandal, from mocking other MKs’ disabilities, to baiting Arab legislators and making disparaging remarks about female lawmakers’ appearances.
There are other MKs who were shown the door who didn’t do much in their four years of bringing in a taxpayer-funded salary, like Yaron Mazuz and Nava Boker, and had their own embarrassing moments, like Boker insisting on bringing singer Eyal Golan – he of the many groupies and tax evasion conviction – to the Knesset and singing a duet with him.
Of course, there is a whole new crop of backbenchers who may or may not bring scandals of their own. At this point in the 2015 race, it was clear that Hazan was a wise guy, but the extent of his depravity was not well known. One to look out for is May Golan, an anti-migrant activist from south Tel Aviv who ran in the right-wing extremist party Otzma Yehudit in the previous election. She’s in 34th place, which is just beyond the realistic realm in most polls, but could easily get in if the Likud outperforms the polls on Election Day or if a few MKs end up resigning.
One other clear outcome of the primary is that Likudniks are impressed by a security record. Ex-IDF general Yoav Gallant came in 9th in his first Likud run, and former Shin Bet (General Security Service) chief Avi Dichter came in 11th after struggling to get into a realistic spot at all in 2015.
And former Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat did far better than anyone predicted. The talk among Likud insiders was that he didn’t make good deals to get the support of other candidates. But the combination of popularity among independent voters, support from settler groups and being independently wealthy enough to bankroll a long campaign worked for him.
Now, what does this all mean for the future? In the next few months, expect Netanyahu to disregard the ranking on the list and prefer loyalists for ministerial positions – especially in Sa’ar’s case.
Even farther down the line than that, this race was a preview of the race to replace Netanyahu. When the prime minister steps down, or is forced to go by his legal troubles, expect a very tight race to the top. Edelstein has now proven himself to be a force to be reckoned with, and those who have said he will run for president – a race in which only MKs vote – and not prime minister should be questioning that assertion. Katz has long seen himself as Netanyahu’s natural heir, but Sa’ar and Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, who came in third place, still have strong chances.
But until April 9, these results mean the Likud has a good, strong team for its upcoming campaign.