How the Likud Primaries Could Backfire on Netanyahu

The prime minister has been bending over backward trying to balance between his desire to appeal to the political center and the growing rightward inclination of his party members.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

The swift ending of the Gaza operation has put paid to all talk of postponing the primaries or the elections and now, with the ceasefire down south holding, campaigning is going full steam ahead. The next ten days until the December 6 deadline for all parties to hand in their lists of candidates will be a frenzied period of voting, committee meetings in smoke-filled rooms, horse trading and desperation for the hopefuls whose dreams of public service and privilege will be dashed.

First up are the Likud primaries being held today with results expected sometime around midnight on Sunday. 123,000 party members will each select 12 names from a list of 97 aspiring parliamentarians. There are deals, approved lists and targeted assassinations galore. For the senior ministers and MKs, it is not just about getting back into the Knesset, their position on the list will also denote their power and patronage as will the success of their protégés and rivals. For Benjamin Netanyahu, party leader and number one on the list, there are three main concerns:

A right-wing list – the present parliamentary faction has a preponderance of hard-case ideologues and stalwarts of the settler cause. But during his term, Netanyahu managed to curb and contain most of their excesses. He needs some of the more telegenic right-wingers to face the challenge of Naftali Bennett's rejuvenated Habayit Hayehudi, which is threatening to shave off an entire swath of voters. On the other hand, too many of them will give the impression he has lost control of the party and scare off centrist voters. They are a bit like the Tea Party faction within the Republican Party in the United States – they can help energize part of the base and at the same time alienate others.

The one face Netanyahu least wants to see on his backbenches is Moshe Feiglin, the head of the far-right Jewish Leadership group who, for a decade or so, has been trying unsuccessfully to get into the Knesset (he also personally challenged Netanyahu for the party leadership on a few occasions). Today is his fourth attempt and many within the party believe this is his year.

The last Likud liberals – while eager MKs were trying to push through new bills stopping foreign funding from NGOs, limiting the powers of the Supreme Court and levying heavy libel fines on the hostile media, a tiny group of veteran Likudniks - those who still remember the Beitar ideal of "Hadar" (decorum) and Menachem Begin's expression of complete faith in the judiciary - try and remind their fellow members that Likud still describes itself as a "national liberal movement."

They are ministers Dan Meridor, Benny Begin, Michael Eitan and Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin. Of these four, only Rivlin is likely to be placed high on the list, due to his popularity across the party (combining respect for liberal democracy and a hawkish stance on settlement issues, Rivlin is that rare creature in Likud). While Netanyahu will probably not lament the departure of Eitan, who tried to mobilize opposition within the party to the joint list with Yisrael Beiteinu, he wants the veneer of respectability that ministers like Begin and Meridor, with their hard-working and clean image, provide the party. But the two are not involved in any of the major deals and are viewed by right-wing elements in the party as crypto-leftists. If we discover tonight that Feiglin is in while Begin or Meridor are out, this will be the end of Likud as we know it.

Netanyahu's personal favorites – the prime minister has, in public at least, remained aloof from the contest calling upon party members to come and vote without showing favor to any of the candidates. The Gaza operation left Netanyahu with very little for time behind-the-scenes lobbying but Likud members know that he favors a select number of candidates. Chief among them is his unpopular finance minister, Yuval Steinitz, who has carrying out a tough job with nearly utmost loyalty, as well as former minister Tzachi Hanegbi, who left recently returned to Likud after a seven-year stint in Kadima, and maverick economist Shlomo Maoz. Netanyahu needs Iraqi-born Maoz to add some Mizrahi (Sephardi) color to what is increasingly being seen as a "white," Ashkenazi-dominated list, while he hugely appreciates the political skills of Hanegbi and credits him with delivering the final death-blow to Kadima.

The problem is that none of Netanyahu's preferred candidates are popular within the party. Steinitz is blamed for Likud's uncompassionate image; many party members have not forgotten or forgiven Hanegbi's defection and they resent the way the prime minister has tried to parachute Maoz at the expense of lifelong party activists. If Maoz or Hanegbi fail to get in while Steinitz is humiliated with a relatively lowly spot on the list (that would still gain him a seat; no-one wants to contemplate the eviction of such a senior minister), it will be a sign that Netanyahu can expect trouble down the road from his party.

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, with his wife Sara, right, arriving to vote at the Likud primaries in the settlement of Givat Zeev, near Jerusalem, Nov. 25, 2012.Credit: AP

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