Bitter anti-Netanyahu Mood Reigns at Likud Party Convention

The slogan 'anyone but Bibi' makes its way from the opposition into Netanyahu's political home.

Ofer Vaknin

As the national anthem began playing, some of the convention-goers were already on their feet – but not in honor of “Hatikva.”

“Now, now,” they chanted, aiming their wrath at Likud Central Committee chairman Danny Danon, who had just made the surprise announcement that he was adjourning the meeting until today without voting on a motion that would effectively have canceled some of today’s planned votes. Moreover, Danon said, today’s balloting will be secret rather than open, contrary to the demands of MK Moshe Feiglin and his supporters.

Ofer Vaknin

As angry members waved their membership cards, slogans written on the back were clearly visible: “Enough of the dictatorship!” “Bibi, we won’t give you a blank check!”

Ofer Vaknin

The motions on today’s agenda are purely technical: advancing Likud’s leadership primary by one week, from early January to late December; choosing the party’s Knesset slate that same day instead of later; and altering the way the slate is chosen. Nevertheless, a loss on these issues could bring the current party leader, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, one step closer to the end of his career. And Danon, despite being a long-time rival of Netanyahu’s, came to his rescue last night by ensuring that the votes will at least go forward.

Likud leaders have never had an easy time in their party’s central committee. But this time, at Danon’s initiative, the committee met in the Eshel Hotel in the West Bank settlement of Ariel instead of its usual venue, the Tel Aviv Fairgrounds. And since the West Bank is Feiglin’s home court, hostility to Netanyahu ran even higher than usual. When Netanyahu’s name was mentioned from the dais, about half the time booing followed.

“Arrogance, disconnection from the people,” a central committee member named Halperin said when asked to explain Netanyahu’s plummeting status in his party. Another veteran panel member, Eliyahu Kornfeld, accused Netanyahu of “trying to steal the party.”

Two things stood out from last night’s meeting. First, the slogan “anyone but Bibi” isn’t solely the province of the opposition; it has made deep inroads into Netanyahu’s political home. Second was the deafening silence over the possibility that former minister Gideon Sa’ar might challenge Netanyahu for Likud’s leadership. Sa’ar’s name was barely mentioned, either in the speeches or in convention-goers’ conversations.

Yaakov Vider, who heads the Likud’s ultra-Orthodox branch, said he thought the main reason for this silence was that Sa’ar hasn’t yet decided whether to run.

But a senior MK close to Sa’ar disagreed. “Gideon Sa’ar won’t run; that’s a fact,” he said. “It’s clear to him that such a move at this stage would only damage his image, and that his chances of beating Netanyahu in the primary aren’t great.”

Central committee member Yoav Dabush said his colleagues’ number-one goal was “to restore power to themselves – to change the system.” But he also discerned “a strong desire to replace Netanyahu.”

“I personally think Bibi could continue for another term at least, but he’s lost even more support here than previous Likud leaders have,” Dabush said. But the party’s anger wasn’t aimed exclusively at Netanyahu; its various camps were no less bitter at each other. Particularly evident was the loathing among veteran Likud members for Feiglin’s supporters, the relative newcomers, who were out in force. The Feiglin camp was noticeably younger, more religious and more Ashkenazi than the veterans.

“You’ve stolen the party,” one central committee member spat at a Feiglin supporter.

The central committee drama continues today with the secret ballot. But Danon’s procedural decision in Netanyahu’s favor has apparently added a few more drops of bitterness to Likud’s cup.