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Likud Primary: All About Loyalty

 If Netanyahu is able to energize the electorate as much as he energized Likud members, his chances are quite good


Last Wednesday, 80,000 Israelis left their homes in sweltering August weather — not for the beach (as a famous Israeli politician once recommended), but to line up at voting booths throughout the country.

Last week, three months from Election Day, primaries were held in the Likud, Israel’s largest party. Among the main parties, only the rightist Likud maintains the tradition — hailing from the ’90s — of giving rank-and-file members say in the makeup of the list.

In the decade-old Yesh Atid, interim prime minister Yair Lapid’s control of the party machinery is absolute. Lapid and his cronies draw up the party slate in the basement of his Tel Aviv home, and even longtime allies have found themselves tossed by the wayside after daring to voice the most restrained criticism.

For example, take Ofer Shelah, a party co-founder once considered Lapid’s closest friend. Shelah had the temerity to muse publicly about holding democratic party primaries after Lapid extended his own chairmanship for the umpteenth time ahead of the 2021 election.

Despite claiming to welcome the challenge, Lapid brutally stamped out the rebellion, moving quickly to make Shelah a virtual outcast in the party. Today his former friend is licking his wounds outside the political arena, earning a living as — you’d never guess — an American sports commentator.

“Lapid waxes very eloquent about democracy, until it actually concerns him,” Shelah told me at the time, perfectly summing up the prime minister’s vacuity.

As with the pot that called the kettle black, the authoritarian Lapid didn’t prevent his myrmidons from slamming the Likud as a “party focused on one man.”

Irony gave up and jumped off a roof.


IN the Likud primaries, voting still takes place by paper ballot, just like in the ’80s, after an experiment with digital voting flopped spectacularly. That meant results were only available the next day, after every ballot had been opened and tallied by hand.

The earthquake that followed Thursday afternoon’s release of final results drew comparisons to what’s going on in the Likud’s American counterpart, the Republican Party. The two ex-leader party bosses, Bibi and Trump, are embroiled in criminal investigations, and both are doubling down on the charge of corrupt justice systems pursuing political vendettas against conservatives. And they’re both out to crush opposition in their parties.

Like Republicans, Likudniks have a long history of factionalism and intrigue against their leader. But Wednesday’s vote put an end to that. Every leading Likud figure who challenged Netanyahu — or even hinted at an ambition to succeed him — found himself shunted down the list.

For example: Former health minister and Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein is an Israeli hero, a prisoner of Zion who escaped incarceration in Russia. Seen as a unifying figure, he had taken the Likud list’s top spot — his name appearing just under party chair Netanyahu’s — four times in a row. As Netanyahu’s health minister, he helped lead the vaccination campaign that made Israel the first country in the world to exit the coronavirus crisis.

His only crime? A short-lived challenge to Netanyahu’s leadership earlier this year, after which he quickly recanted.

“I kept my criticism inside the family, and I now firmly support Netanyahu,” Edelstein told me on the eve of the primaries.

But this didn’t stop Likud members from hurling him down to the 18th spot on the list.

Another example: MK Yisrael Katz, chair of the Likud secretariat, finance minister in Netanyahu’s most recent government, and for many years perceived as the most powerful man in the party. Voters saw Katz as laying the foundations for his campaign to succeed Netanyahu.

“As long as Netanyahu’s on the scene, I’m behind him,” Katz told me.

But even his public statements of support couldn’t save him from relegation. Members booted Katz from the number-three spot (after Netanyahu and, formerly, Edelstein) to number 12, after detecting his subtle signs of disloyalty.


IN the US, Republican candidates (but no FBI agents, please) have to make the pilgrimage to Mar-a-Lago to declare their loyalty, as Trump remakes the party in his image. The Likud has yet to require ritual visits to Netanyahu’s Caesarea vacation home, but the party’s loyalty test is no less demanding.

Unlike Trump, Netanyahu didn’t just take the party by storm just six years ago; he’s been Likud chairman since the ’90s. But recently, both he and the party have been transformed.

Until last week, Netanyahu’s campaign strategy was to woo the moderate or “soft” right, and win back voters who defected to Gideon Saar and Benny Gantz.

After the Likud primary results, this plan has gone to the scrapheap. The party establishment is gone, and with it moderate voters. From now on, Netanyahu will focus on driving up voter turnout in hard-right strongholds, in periphery towns and neighborhoods where it’s hitherto been low. If he’s able to energize the electorate as much as he energized Likud members, his chances are quite good.


Likud primary day is a folk holiday of sorts. Candidates set up stalls loaded with high-fat, high-calorie foods. Every voter is treated to a warm, sweaty hug. The music, the atmosphere, the dancing — all really capture the spirit of the Likud.

But what stood out this time were the voters in black and white: chareidim wearing white shirts and black kippahs. Some chareidi askanim have turned this into a profession. They enroll groups of chareidim into the Likud, selling their bloc’s votes to the highest bidder, buying themselves positions of influence in Israel’s leading party.

One such group in the half-chareidi city of Beit Shemesh was stopped by Rav Gershon Edelstein, Degel HaTorah’s spiritual leader, at the last moment. Some 500 chareidi residents were on the verge of voting as a bloc in a prearranged deal when word came from the Rosh Yeshivah to abstain.

A decade ago, Shas chairman Aryeh Deri considered emulating the American system, having chareidim integrate into the two largest parties instead of organizing their own.

“Today it’s clear that this model can’t be copied in Israel,” MK Uri Maklev tells Mishpacha. “The past year in the opposition has demonstrated that our fight is not over funding but over the Jewish identity of the State of Israel, and when it comes to this, ‘im ein ani li, mi li?’ ”


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 924)

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