Likud’s right flank sends a warning shot across Netanyahu’s bow

Pro-settlement elements torpedo the PM’s bid to take charge of the party’s convention, revealing new party paradigm

Conventional wisdom has it that Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud will sail to a second term as ruling party in new elections. But the chaotic party convention Sunday night in Tel Aviv — at which Netanyahu’s intended confirmation as the convention’s president was sabotaged — showed that choppy waters may be ahead.

On Sunday night, the Likud’s right wing flexed its muscle, showing the prime minister that he needs to remain steadfast in his support for the settlements if he wants their unwavering backing.

Netanyahu is still overwhelmingly likely to be re-elected as prime minister, whether he wins the Likud’s party convention presidency or not. But on Sunday night, the party’s pro-settlement camp fired a clear warning shot in his direction.

Even before the opening session of the convention, there had been a lot of confusion about the vote for convention president — a position key to shaping the process the Likud uses to elect its Knesset slate, among other things.

At first it was rumored that Minister Michael Eitan and MK Danny Danon had withdrawn their candidacies and that Netanyahu would be the only contender for the powerful post of convention president. But then, a few hours before hundreds of Central Committee members crowded into the Tel Aviv Fairgrounds, Danon declared that “contrary to what was publicized before, I am in the running for president of the Likud Central Committee.”

Outside the convention hall, the presence of small encampments of the various groups demonstrating for the “equal sharing of the burden” — military or national service for all — seemed to indicate what topic might dominate the upcoming campaign season. “Netanyahu, promise!” one poster read. “We had enough of being suckers,” another one.

However, inside nobody talked about the Tal Law, which allowed for ultra-Orthodox army deferments, or possible legislation to replace it. While party bigwigs gave interviews and lower-level party members enjoyed the setting afternoon sun and the lavish smorgasbord — which was more reminiscent of a wedding than a party convention — some activists collected signatures for a petition to elect the convention’s president by secret ballot. If, as is usual at Likud party conventions, the Central Committee would vote by show of hands, many would eschew their genuine preference for fear of offending the party chairman and prime minister, said the activists, most of whom were close to the settlement movement.

A great majority of the male attendees in the hall wore skullcaps, a general sign of identification with the religious right, and while they cheered for Netanyahu during his opening remarks, many apparently didn’t want to give him an easy victory in the bid for convention chief. If there were to have been a secret ballot, Danon could perhaps have won.

“Secret, secret,” the masses chanted after Netanyahu’s opening speech, preventing the Likud officials from proceeding with the vote as planned. The convention officials finally gave in and counted how many Central Committee members had signed the petition — enough, apparently, to force the postponement of the vote — a slap in the face for Netanyahu, who had surely hoped he would be able to focus on getting re-elected prime minister rather than securing control of his own party.

“We are a democratic movement, perhaps the most democratic in the country. And we therefore decided to respect your demand,” the Likud official in charge of running the convention said, flanked by portraits of late prime minister Menachem Begin, on the left side of the stage, and Revisionist Zionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky on the right, after having reached the decision together with the party’s legal advisor.

The presidency of the Likud Convention is quite a powerful office, as its holder basically controls the way in which the party determines who stands where on its Knesset list for the upcoming elections. The party’s final list will be determined through democratic elections, but the convention process can initiate changes to the way in which these elections are held.

‘We will not accept the direct or indirect appointment of Barak. We will not allow an attempt to unite Likud and the Independence party or any other clever attempt at enabling Barak to join the Likud list!’

What’s in it for Danon? In the run-up to the convention’s opening session, the deputy speaker of the Knesset made it clear that the key aim of his candidacy was to keep Defense Minister Ehud Barak, long a Labor Party stalwart, out of the next government. “I will work to prevent any chance of Barak joining the Likud and I intend to lead this conference in a moral and ideological way,” he declared earlier Sunday.

As convention president, Danon could more easily bid to ensure that Netanyahu does not arrange a spot for Barak on the Likud Knesset slate, and he could also try to prevent Netanyahu from getting rid of right-wing hardliners; Moshe Feiglin was the victim of precisely such treatment prior to the last elections.

“The Likud has stayed true to its democratic values and said ‘no’ tonight to the possibility of reserving a slot for Ehud Barak on our party’s slate,” Danon said after the convention’s postponement was announced.

A few hours before, in a television interview, Danon had evoked the biblical Jethro, who advised his son-in law Moses to share some of the responsibility of leading the nation and appoint advisers under him, implying that Netanyahu shouldn’t have too much power concentrated in his hands. The fact that the current situation is heaving Danon into the spotlight, and thus raises his profile, might also play a part in his decision to run against the prime minister.

“The upcoming convention will be an ideological one which will unite our party behind Prime Minister Netanyahu as we prepare to win in the upcoming general elections,” he said early Monday morning.

What about the more moderate and less publicity-seeking Eitan, the current minister for improvement of government services? What’s in it for him?

“I applied for the presidency of the convention even before Bibi decided that he was going to run. I think that with my experience and my commitment to democracy, I would be a fair convention president. I would respect the convention and avoid a situation like the one we saw today — chaos and disorder. I would to turn this around into something that is bringing honor to the Likud,” he told The Times of Israel, using Netanyahu’s nickname.

“These conditions here in the hall were such that it was impossible to count the votes, it was impossible to come to a fair conclusion of who won,” Eitan said. “This needs to be done in a orderly fashion, with secret ballots, and that is what was decided today. It was a good decision and I think everybody accepts it.”

Indeed, it would have been extremely difficult to make a fair decision by a show of hands in the overcrowded hall. The convention officials had apparently not envisaged that the Central Committee members would demand a secret vote and were totally overwhelmed by the situation.

“I’d vote for Danny Danon, his views are much more like mine,” said a veteran Central Committee member from Jerusalem. “He’s a real Likudnik.”

‘I’d vote for Danny Danon, his views are much more like mine. He’s a real Likudnik’

To be sure, Netanyahu is still the Likud’s superstar and sole choice for prime minister, but at Sunday’s convention, it seemed that most people identified with Danon, whose views are considerably to the right of Netanyahu’s.

“I’m voting for Danon, it’s a no-brainer,” an Orthodox Likud Central Committee member from Beit Shemesh said before entering the hall. “He’s much more right-wing. There’s no question that he’d protect the country better than Bibi, and not make concessions so easily.”


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