Likud primaries are coming up - what will happen?

With so many candidates and races happening in one day, there are likely to be plenty of surprises on the way, but here are some of the trends and drama in store.

HOW TIMES have changed. Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu addresses a Likud primaries event several years ago flanked by (from left) Silvan Shalom, Gilad Erdan, Carmel Shama and Gideon Sa’a’ar. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
HOW TIMES have changed. Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu addresses a Likud primaries event several years ago flanked by (from left) Silvan Shalom, Gilad Erdan, Carmel Shama and Gideon Sa’a’ar.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
The Likud primary is set to take place on Tuesday, with 113 polling places spread from Eilat in the South to Kiryat Shmona in the North, and competition in the largest party in Israel is as stiff as it’s ever been, with five candidates for every one of the expected 30 seats at which the party has been polling fairly consistently.
The Likud list is divided between national seats, which are elected by all the party’s members, and district seats, in which central committee members can vote. Then there are special seats like one for a new non-Jewish candidate, for an immigrant or for a candidate under 35. Current MKs can run only in the national seats – with the exception of Avraham Neguise, who is the front-runner for the immigrant spot – which means that a third of them are not expected to come back to the next Knesset, because only the first 23 national spots are likely to get into the Knesset.
And there are endless deals made between different candidates, interests groups and power players, who give their supporters lists of recommended candidates to include in the 12 on their final ballots.
With so many candidates and races happening in one day, there are likely to be plenty of surprises on the way, but here are some of the trends and drama in store.
The Bibi factor
Likudniks love Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but they don’t really want him involved in what the party does, and he isn’t thought to have much influence in the primary. One of the greatest indications of this is that Gideon Sa’ar is expected to do well, and Netanyahu has not hidden his distaste for the former minister. This is also why – contrary to reports in other media – he has thus far stuck to his tradition of not publicly recommending any candidates for the primaries. Still, at least some of the candidates that he is thought to prefer – Water and Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz, Tourism Minister Yariv Levin, MK Amir Ohana – are considered likely to get into the top 18.
Meanwhile, Netanyahu has until February 21, the deadline to submit party lists, to recruit someone to appoint to the 21st spot on the list. One name that has been whispered between Likud insiders is that of Deputy Minister for Diplomacy Michael Oren, who announced last month that he is not running for reelection with the Kulanu Party, but left the door open for other offers. Tal Gilboa, a reality TV fixture, vegan activist and friend of Yair Netanyahu, has told any journalist who will listen that she is going to be Netanyahu’s pick, but few think that is a serious possibility.
The Katzes
In the last primary, the big power players were Transportation Minister Israel Katz and Labor and Social Services Minister Haim Katz, after they made a deal to work together to promote each other and the candidates they prefer.
This year, however, Israel Katz has teamed up with Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, leaving Haim Katz out in the cold. Haim Katz’s power in the Likud is based on his being the former head of the Israel Aerospace Industries workers’ union, and using that position to recruit thousands of people into the party. But a lot of groups have followed his model, including cab drivers and a Kabbalah organization, both of which have thousands of Likud members who support Israel Katz. IAI workers, and therefore Haim Katz, no longer have the power that they once had, to the point that Haim Katz is thought to be fighting for his life in the party.
The race to the top
 In the previous Likud list, Erdan was No. 2 after Netanyahu. Can he maintain his position? Sa’ar also used to be the top primary vote-getter, and is thought to be a likely contender for the top five, if not a return to his former glory. Israel Katz is also up there, as is Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein and Culture Minister Miri Regev.
Former Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat sees himself as a contender for the top spot, as well, and appears to be popular with independent voters. But the other top candidates don’t look kindly at newcomers, who mean more competition, and are expected to tell their supporters to leave him off their ballots. In addition, a Likud insider said Barkat was weak in the deal-making department and “doesn’t know how to speak the language of the Likud.”
Yoav Gallant, a former IDF major-general, and Avi Dichter, the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee chairman and former Shin Bet chief, are likely to do well, and are campaigning hard on their security credentials. Dichter will also get a big boost from being the MK who proposed the Jewish Nation-State bill, which is very popular in the Likud, and that same bump will help Ohana, as well, as the chairman of the special Knesset committee that ushered it through the legislative process.
 Female fight
 The battle for the title of “first lady of the Likud” is especially fierce this year. Regev and Social Equality Minister Gila Gamliel do not get along, with Gamliel calling out Regev for her populism and tone. Regev reportedly told her supporters not to support Gamliel, as well as Edelstein, because of their spat about the Independence Day ceremony. But while Edelstein was always going to be a major contender, Gamliel does not have the same power base. Regev may have inadvertently boosted Gamliel by making her ire so apparent, in that it makes Gamliel look like tough competition.
As for Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely, she is like Barkat – someone who is popular with a lot of independent Likud voters, but thought to not have gotten much of the organized thousands of members behind her.
 Is populism still popular?
Regev’s place on the Likud list is also a test of whether her brash and populist ways are still popular in the party. If Gamliel passes her, or if Regev drops out of the top five, then that will send a message as to what people think of her tone. Regev seems to be beloved by many in the party, but there have been some murmurs that she’s overdone it.
Speaking of overdoing it, it will be interesting to see if MK Oren Hazan gets back into the Knesset. His name recognition may be worth a lot among independent voters, but the powerful ministers in the party are sick of him and unlikely to recommend him on their influential lists. A snub from Edelstein’s supporters alone may be enough to doom Hazan, who has repeatedly taunted the Knesset speaker.
But “the Davids,” as sketch comedy show Eretz Nehederet calls coalition chairman David “Dudi” Amsalem and his predecessor in the role, David Bitan, are shoo-ins even if their brashness is not much different from Regev’s. Both have proven to be highly effective in their roles, despite doubts that their bullying ways may not work. Plus, one Likud insider said he saw Bitan “bring carts full of registration forms, thousands and thousands, into the Metzuda,” Likud headquarters in Tel Aviv, and that Bitan’s ongoing corruption investigation won’t hurt him much – kind of like Netanyahu.
The outcasts
 There has been some ongoing drama in recent weeks with the candidates from the New Likudniks – a group of thousands who seek to be a moderating force in the party – and Gilad Sharon, a son of former prime minister Ariel Sharon, being disqualified from running in the primary. The New Likudniks were accused of going against the values of the Likud, while Sharon has not been a party member long enough and Netanyahu decided not to waive the waiting periods for anyone other than Gallant. They both still had court cases pending as of Thursday, and could still end up in the running.
The New Likudniks claim to have 8,000 eligible voting members in the party, which would mean their recommendations are important. But party insiders doubt that and said they are exaggerating, pointing to the fact that very few major MKs and ministers in the party are actually courting their votes.
In addition, their endorsement can do more harm than good. At least one person who spoke with The Jerusalem Post posited that MK Sharren Haskel’s close association with the moderate group will lose her votes from others.