Netanyahu offers referendum on primaries

JERUSALEM — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last Thursday proposed approaching Likud's more than 200,000 members and asking them how they want the party to elect its Knesset candidates: via primaries or through the central committee.

Netanyahu's proposal, made at a press conference in his Jerusalem bureau, was roundly welcomed by Likud ministers and Knesset members who hotly oppose the recent decision to dump the primaries.

The party court quickly endorsed another proposal Netanyahu made public at his press conference and appointed a team to probe all complaints regarding the convention. The team will be headed by the court's chief, retired judge Hanna Evenor.

The team's four other members — Science Minister Michael Eitan, MK Reuven Rivlin, Hod Hasharon Mayor Ezra Binyamini and former Rishon Lezion mayor Hananya Gibstein — were nominated by Netanyahu.

Netanyahu's press conference was the first time he faced reporters since returning from abroad Wednesday of last week. It followed another day crammed with political consultations geared to defusing the Likud's crisis. His most important meeting was with Communications Minister Limor Livnat, who was close to joining the anti-Netanyahu rebels.

At the press conference, Netanyahu emphatically denied any intention to sack her or any other minister.

He also rejected the notion of advancing elections at his own initiative. A national unity government, he stated, would be possible only if other parties "subscribe to existing government guidelines. Then they would be welcome to join."

His most implacable foes, Netanyahu asserted, are "a coalition of ambitions…It's OK for them to dislike me and disagree with me, but anyone elected on the Likud list owes a minimum of loyalty in Knesset votes — the budget, for example."

Netanyahu did not specify how the Likud rank and file would be polled about how to put together the party's slate of Knesset candidates, and he did not say who would phrase the question. Moreover, he said the members' preferences would not constitute the final word on the issue that threatens to rip the Likud apart.

"The final decision will be that of the central committee," he explained to the press. "But I want to turn to each of our members and ask for that member's opinion. I will take the answers back to the central committee and will place my full political weight behind whatever the majority preference among the party faithful is. We need to heal the rift in the party and this mandates unconventional moves."

Netanyahu said the "party court will determine the inquiry committee's brief. I have imposed no restrictions and will not limit this probe in any way."

Netanyahu admitted that he had "made my share of errors. None of us is perfect and immune from mistakes…but I believe I have made fair proposals and made them in good faith. Anyone who wants cooperation, understanding, and healing in the Likud will accept them."

But this is not what MK Ze'ev Begin thought.

"Netanyahu could have called for a referendum before the convention," said Begin. "He did not do so, because he wanted to secure for himself total unbridled control of the party. To that end he deceived his ministers. That is clear and not in need of any probe."

Eitan, who had not spared Netanyahu scathing criticism since the convention, cheered the referendum idea: "This is exactly what the party needs. This will get us back on track. This is the best news the party membership could hope for."

He trusts that the Likud members will overwhelmingly support the primaries and thinks this is "a fair and wise way to resolve the question."