Politics: A look inside the strangest election that never happened

With no one to run against Netanyahu, the Likud was left with its first uncontested leadership race since its first primary among party members was held in 1993.

Benjamin Netanyahu (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Benjamin Netanyahu
The entire farce of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s uncontested, then canceled Likud leadership race could have been avoided had an eccentric Beersheba physicist been willing to make a little more effort.
His name is Vladimir Herzberg, and his unconventional hobby is running in elections. Chances are you’ve never heard of him, but he has run in the past for Jewish Agency chairman, mayor of Beersheba, and three times for leader of the Likud.
When Herzberg said he wanted to run against Netanyahu in the February 23 Likud primary, he was told that all he needed was NIS 10,000 and the signatures of 500 Likud members who support him.
There are many more than 500 people among the Likud’s 100,000 members who don’t like Netanyahu and would join any effort against him, no matter how hopeless. All Herzberg had to do was get them to sign a piece of paper.
But Herzberg, 70, said that even though he considers himself more worthy to be prime minister than Netanyahu, he was too old to go around seeking signatures. The Likud administration did not approve his candidacy.
Two other perennial candidates are gone: Netanyahu dispatched Danny Danon to the United Nations, and Moshe Feiglin left the Likud after its members voted him out of a realistic slot on the party’s Knesset candidates list.
That left Netanyahu all alone, and the Likud with its first uncontested leadership race since its first primary among party members was held in 1993.
Newspapers that have an anti-Netanyahu agenda attacked him mercilessly, putting the story on page one all week. The pro-Netanyahu newspaper Israel Hayom, by contrast, buried the story on page 18.
In Tuesday’s Yediot Aharonot, columnist Sima Kadmon compared the Likud race to the show elections of North Korea. Two days later, when the election was canceled, Kadmon’s column was entitled “The victory of fear.”
“It is just as pathetic as it is sad,” she wrote. “A sitting prime minister, who has immeasurable power and influence, is worried not only about possible future competitors against him but also even about his own competition against himself.”
Yossi Verter wrote in Israel’s fifth-largest circulation newspaper, Haaretz, that the controversy over the Likud race left Netanyahu “a beaten, limping laughingstock.”
So why did Netanyahu enter this situation? Did he not realize that he would be the only candidate? Was he not aware that he would face ridicule? The story that has been told is that Netanyahu wanted to avoid a challenge from his former No. 2 in the Likud, Gideon Sa’ar, which could have taken place had the primary been held on time, just ahead of the next election for Knesset. Sa’ar sat out the race, calling it a “puppet show.”
Sources close to Netanyahu said his decision-making process was actually more complicated.
His decision to advance the Likud primary was leaked to Channel 2 political correspondent Amit Segal late Saturday night, December 19. One night earlier, the same channel aired a very complimentary report on Transportation Minister Israel Katz called “The Bulldozer” on its flagship Friday night newsmagazine, Ulpan Shishi.
“Minister Katz is paving his way to the Prime Minister’s Office,” a header at the top of the screen read throughout the report, which showed all he had built all over the country in seven years on the job.
Katz, who heads the Likud’s governing secretariat, confirmed in the report that he had blocked Netanyahu from reaching a deal with Bayit Yehudi to run on a joint list with Bayit Yehudi ahead of the 2015 election, similar to the arrangement with Yisrael Beytenu in the previous race.
He also revealed how he prevented Netanyahu from promoting any Likud minister over him to one of the top three portfolios – Finance, Defense and Foreign Affairs – other than Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, who was grandfathered into his post.
Netanyahu is under no illusion that Katz presents a serious challenge to take away the Prime Minister’s Office from him. But as the head of the secretariat, which controls the party’s money, he could make Netanyahu’s life very difficult.
Katz got his political ally, Welfare and Social Services Minister Haim Katz, to run for the chairmanship of the Likud central committee, winning another key pressure point over Netanyahu.
“The Katzes were taking over the party, so he had to do something,” a minister close to Netanyahu said.
The real danger the Katzes presented was that they could support a proposal requiring a candidate for at least a third term as Likud leader to obtain 60 percent of the vote to win reelection. The proposal is seen by Netanyahu as a de facto term limit, because if five candidates would run against him, it could spell the end of his political career.
It may have looked bad for Netanyahu to have no competition, but it was much better for him than to face a pack of wolves, who could have ganged up on him to prevent him from getting 60 percent of the vote.
Katz is smart enough to not publicly back such a controversial proposal, but, along with Haim Katz, he could shepherd it through the Likud’s institutions without leaving his fingerprints, a realistic possibility that justifiably put Netanyahu on edge.
By advancing the Likud leadership race before the central committee could deliberate on the proposal, Netanyahu saved himself from feeling its effects for a long time. Even if it passed, the proposal would take effect only with the next primary, which does not have to take place until just ahead of the Knesset election after the next one, currently scheduled for 2023.
Had the one-man race taken place, Netanyahu’s competition would have been a blank ballot. There were legal questions whether blank ballot votes would have counted as abstentions, votes against Netanyahu, or not counted at all. There was also a question of whether, in an uncontested race, Netanyahu would have gotten the minimum amount of votes for the quorum necessary to make it official.
The decision by the Likud’s highest internal court Wednesday to cancel the election saved Netanyahu those headlines.
The fact that seven judges voted unanimously solidified the decision legally, leaving Netanyahu with no need to worry that another leadership race could be demanded ahead of the next election for Knesset.
That number seven is also symbolic for Netanyahu, who won his seventh term as leader of the Likud. He has come a long way since the first time he won the post in a 1993 race against David Levy, Bennie Begin and Moshe Katsav.
Israel’s history would have been very different had Netanyahu lost back then.
He could have been a footnote in Israel’s history rather than playing the major role he has.
Netanyahu could not have been Vladimir Herzberg, just as Vladimir Herzberg could not have been Netanyahu. But by not running, Herzberg resulted in Netanyahu racing in place.