For Zion's sake: Likud Knesset primaries – candidates to watch

For those of you who can vote today, enjoy the privilege. After suffering through the avalanche of mail, campaign calls and text messages over the past two weeks, you’ve earned it.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C) with Likud members at the party's primaries in 2012 (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C) with Likud members at the party's primaries in 2012
Today, members of Likud will get the chance to do what over 95 percent of Israel cannot: cast a vote directly for individual Knesset members, and perhaps the next prime minister of Israel, too.
And unlike the general elections, where voters are granted a single vote to select the proportional composition of a 120-member Knesset and impact the formation of the government, in the Likud primaries, voters are afforded a number of votes. In today’s primary, each voter will choose 11 national candidates and one district candidate.
Yet, despite the number of votes at Likud members’ disposal, when it comes to the sitting members of Knesset, this primary is not likely to change much. Of the top 20-21 slots on the list (the Likud is currently polling in the low twenties) there are 15 national spots for which incumbent MKs can compete. With the resignation of a number of Likud MKs – Carmel Shama HaCohen (now ambassador to the OECD); Gideon Sa’ar (on leave); Limor Livnat (resigned) and Reuven Rivlin (now Israel’s president) – there are 16 incumbents seeking those spots.
With their huge advantage in publicity and prior relationships with internal party players, all the sitting MKs but one are all but guaranteed to retain their positions. In the previous primaries, by contrast, 26 MKs (not including the Prime Minister) and two additional strong candidates competed for 20 national spots whose holders ultimately went on to the Knesset. In the current competition, the stakes are much lower, with MKs competing mainly to achieve a high enough ranking to enable their appointment as ministers.
Putting aside the one realistic spot which the party chairman is empowered to fill (unless it is held unconstitutional by the Likud’s internal court), the big changes in the Likud’s list will therefore come from the district spots, where only non-incumbents can compete. I am not familiar with all the districts spots, but as a Jerusalem resident and member of the Likud’s Jerusalem branch, I am fairly familiar with the Jerusalem district, which will elect the 21st spot on the list.
The Jerusalem candidates are David Amsalem, chairman of the Likud’s Jerusalem branch, and Yair Gabbay, a former Jerusalem city councilman. Leaving the vote-contracting related rumors aside, Amsalem was one of the people behind Moshe Lion’s failed candidacy against Nir Barkat, hardly a proud moment for the Likud. Under Amsalem’s control, the branch has been mostly inactive for as long as I have been a Likud member and even longer than that, I am told, even though it is the largest Likud branch in Israel.
More disconcerting, however, is Amsalem’s campaign for the past two years to cancel the membership’s right to vote in primaries and to have the Central Committee choose the list. Amsalem claims this will return the Likud to Likudnikim, which is likely a reference to retrieving power from residents of settlements or national-religious members of Likud.
Whatever his motivation, it would be a shame if someone who believes in canceling members’ right to vote were to be elected by members.
The underdog, Gabbay, was a City Council member for 10 years. During that time he advocated for more construction in Jerusalem, including in east Jerusalem. Gabbay also advocates for the release of state land and greater construction throughout the country as a means of easing the cost of living, since rental and mortgage payments constitute most Israelis’ highest expense. This mix of nationalist and economic policy would be a boon to the Likud at a time when voters concerned with security and settlements are looking at Bayit Yehudi and voters who want a party that addresses economic concerns are looking to Kulanu.
In 2012, four candidates competed for the Jerusalem spot. Amsalem took about half the votes, while Gabbay earned about a fourth. Amsalem is still a far more powerful player in the district and the party, but with only two candidates running, the spot is by no means guaranteed to him.
As for incumbent candidates, one who just made the cut last time, and will hopefully remain secure and perhaps move up on the list, is MK Ofir Akunis.
(He ranked 19th among the 20 Likud members who entered the 19th Knesset). Akunis is most definitely an ally to Benjamin Netanyahu in the party. In fact, Akunis owes his political career to Netanyahu. Prior to becoming an MK, he worked for Netanyahu in various public relations positions.
Yet, since becoming a MK, this relationship has not stopped Akunis from publicly disagreeing with the prime minister on the issue of Palestinian statehood, which Akunis opposes. In a Knesset speech Akunis’ campaign released, for example, Akunis is shown yelling that “if he is the last man on earth” to oppose Palestinian statehood, he will never support it.
With increasing calls by some in the party to preserve the party for “us” against national-religious members (with no alleged difference on policy), Akunis is a welcome voice that can bridge the gap between these two camps and maintain the party’s traditional opposition to Palestinian statehood, even though his base is not in the settlements.
The non-incumbent with a chance at a national spot is Shevach Stern, the primary founder of HaMateh HaLeumi BaLikud, which can roughly be translated as the nationalist headquarters or section in the Likud. In the last several years, this group registered thousands of residents of Judea to the Likud and may be most responsible for overdramatized claims that the party has veered to the Right.
Stern also counts four decades of “Land of Israel” activism to his credit, including with the “Land of Israel” lobby in the Knesset. Unlike other new candidates, Stern has a base and pre-existing relationships with other internal players that rival those of currently- serving MKs. If one new candidate can unseat an MK, it will likely be him.
Other new candidates worth mentioning include former MK Michael Ratzon, who previously served as a deputy minister in Ariel Sharon’s government, until Sharon fired him for opposing the Gaza disengagement.
Ratzon maintains his commitment to the Land of Israel, but has not achieved much of note since and has been accused of abusing his position on at least two occasions.
Amir Weitmann, a financial advisor by trade, is seeking the immigrant spot, number 27 on the list.
A self-described free market capitalist, he co-founded the Israel Freedom Movement, a forum of libertarian Likud members. In addition to generally reducing governmental economic restrictions, Weitmann wants to create a greater separation between unions and the state by restricting union leaders from simultaneously holding public office. Though Weitmann has little chance of entering the Knesset, voting only for candidates who are assured victory defeats the entire point of voting.
There are also many fine incumbent candidates, each of whom adds a positive element to the Likud’s list, but none of them are in any danger of losing their spot on the list. And many of them, such as MKs Tzipi Hotovely, Danny Danon, Yariv Levin and Moshe Feiglin, are well known to readers of The Jerusalem Post and require no introduction here. I only note that while some of them are criticized as firebrands, they have spoken out against once unthinkable policies, while others remained safely silent.
For those of you who can vote today, enjoy the privilege.
After suffering through the avalanche of mail, campaign calls and text messages over the past two weeks, you’ve earned it.
This article has been corrected. It originally stated that of the top 20 places on the Likud's Knesset list, 16 places are designed as national spots for which incumbents may compete. This was an error. There are only 15. The author apologizes for the mistake.
The writer is an attorney and Likud Central Committee member.