Likud’s Hawkish Earthquake Sparks New Hopes for Centrist Alternatives

In a tectonic shift sure to worry foreign capitals and Diaspora Jews, Israel’s ruling party purges moderates and anoints pro-settler and anti-peace nationalists.

Israeli politics underwent a tectonic shift to the right on Monday following the Likud primaries in which supporters of Jewish settlements and opponents of the peace process emerged triumphant, while relatively centrist moderates were purged from the party’s Knesset list.

The replacement of well-known Likud Old Guard “princes” such as Benny Begin and Dan Meridor with ultra-nationalists newcomers such as Danny Danon and Moshe Feiglin - coming on the heels of the recent Likud merger with Avigdor Lieberman’s Israel Beiteinu party - is sure to elicit concern in foreign ministries throughout the world and among many Diaspora Jews as well. It may also create new long-term challenges for Israel’s hasbara efforts and for the country’s PR campaign abroad.

In addition to their outspoken opposition to negotiations with the Palestinians – 6 of the first 10 on the list are known to oppose the peace process - many of the politicians who now populate the top of the Likud list were also the main proponents of the so-called “anti-democracy” Knesset bills that targeted liberal NGO’s and sought to curtail freedom of speech - and were roundly rebuffed by several American Jewish organizations.

The radically right Likud list may present dramatic new opportunities in the center of the political map, not only for former foreign minister and Kadima leader Tzipi Livni, who is expected to announce her return to politics on Tuesday at noon, but for former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert as well. Olmert may view the distress that the rightist hue of the new Likud list is bound to create among Israeli centrists as a golden not-to-be missed opportunity to forge an emergency “super list” that might challenge the hitherto accepted conventional wisdom of the right wing bloc’s inevitable victory in the January 22 elections.

For the Likud leader, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the hard-right composition of the new list is a mix of good and bad news. The hawkish makeup of the new list is likely to neutralize dangers on Netanyahu’s right flank that stem from his decision to agree to a cease-fire with Hamas in Gaza last week. But Netanyahu will now be vulnerable on his more critical left flank, to which he cannot afford to relinquish more than 3 to 4 percent of the national vote without losing his parliamentary majority.

Netanyahu – who can well utter Job’s biblical lament “what I dreaded has happened to me” - failed in his efforts to convince his party to take a more moderate course and to select politicians who may have “sinned” by opposing the legitimization of hitherto illegal outposts. In an effort to exercise damage control, he is now likely to promise senior government positions to some of the politicians that have been booted out, including, first and foremost, Begin, the former prime minister’s son, who was ousted from the list despite his support for settlements but because of his opposition to a “tyranny of the majority” and his insistence on maintaining the rule of law. Netanyahu might also consider a promise to the electorate to try and set up a broad-based national unity government after the elections, rather than the right-wing coalition that he currently heads.

Lost in the shuffle, ironically, was the surprising announcement on Monday morning by Atzmaut chairman Defense Minister Ehud Barak of his decision to leave politics. Perhaps if he had waited a few more hours, he would have recognized new opportunities to reestablish himself at the top of a new Likud-alternative. And perhaps it isn’t too late for that.

Finally, one should be cautious about overestimating the degree of potential public disfavor with the new Knesset list. After all, it is not just the Likud Knesset list that has veered to the right, but the entire Israeli electorate, which no longer believes in the peace process and shares the often parochial and belligerent “the whole world is against us anyway” view promoted by many of the Likud’s new stars. This weltanschauung, which some have described as chauvinistic and xenophobic, may mark a new chapter in Israel’s history, should the sentiments that helped propel politicians such as Danon, Feiglin and other rejectionist hawks to victory on Monday prevail in the national elections as well. Given the dismal failure of the left and center so far to present a viable alternative to Netanyahu and the Likud, that scenario remains by far the most plausible, despite Monday's “takeover”.

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Ofer Vaknin