Analysis |

Likud's Extremist Slate Could Be Netanyahu's Pyrrhic Victory

In the former prime minister's party primary, ultra-extremists beat the (relatively) responsible wing by a knockout – and Yair Netanyahu's influence is climbing. Meanwhile, during the fighting with Gaza, Lapid and Gantz put their egos on hold

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
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עמוס בידרמן
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

In 2011, halfway through his second term as prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu considered pulling an Ariel Sharon: defecting from Likud together with its responsible lawmakers and rebuilding the party. He even mulled taking a bite out of Kadima to create an enormous centrist party.

After Gaza fighting, come Israel's primaries: LISTEN to Election Overdose

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Ehud Barak, Netanyahu’s defense minister at the time, encouraged him. In those days, Netanyahu was extremely limited in terms of what he could get through the Likud Central Committee. The “Feiglins” among the party’s members were making him miserable. Netanyahu despised them and their namesake. He saw them as an Israeli version of the Tea Party in the United States, a racist backlash to the presidency of Barack Obama that had begun to take over large sections of the Republican Party.

Eleven years later, Moshe Feiglin was booted to the bottom of the Likud slate. There is no need for him: They are all Feiglins, Itamar Ben-Gvirs and above all Bibi-ists, members of the most dangerous and extreme cult of all. It’s not the Tea Party, it’s the arak hafla, to reference one of David Amsalem’s more notorious broadsides against Israel’s Supreme Court. No. 1 among the vilifiers and the abusers, a certified anti-Arab, anti-Ashkenazi racist, Amsalem is the big winner of the primary. He is the symbol and the face of Likud 2022.

Amsalem’s high position on the slate is of critical importance, far more, for example, than the large number of votes for Eli Cohen, the least surprising of the surprises. Cohen is a pallid public representative, a wishy-washy sycophant. Even when he represented Kulanu, the party of the rule of law, on the cabinet, he spent every night at the never-ending celebrations of Likudniks. Yoav Gallant, another alumnus of Moshe Kahlon’s party, did the same, and he too spent his time clearing a path within Likud rather than on the cabinet position Kahlon gave him.

Likud primary poll station, Tel Aviv, on Thursday.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Most of the candidates elected to the top six spots of the slate of Israel’s largest party, starting with the chair, have sworn revenge against the judicial system: to jail the former attorney general, dismiss his successor, bring before a committee of inquiry those who made the decisions on the Netanyahu criminal cases, arrogate to the cabinet the power to choose Supreme Court justices and to subjugate to their own caprices the legal advisors of government ministries, making them their servants rather than civil servants. Some employ tired cliches such as “reforms,” others call a spade a spade: Amsalem, Yariv Levin, Amir Ohana and Yoav Kish. The demolition squad that awaits its orders from the accused.

Netanyahu's dream government

Statements that in the past would have been heard from only the most moonstruck and messianic factions in Israel, today roll off the tongues of those who may soon be ministers in Netanyahu’s dream government. The ultra-extremists won by a knockout against the (relatively speaking) responsible Likudniks who mostly knew how to hold their tongues, didn’t throw temper tantrums in the plenum and cringed when MK May Golan attacked former Prime Minister Naftali Bennett with the full force of her gutter language.

Tzachi Hanegbi and Keren Barak are out. Yuli Edelstein, Yisrael Katz, Ofir Akunis and Gila Gamliel have all been demoted. Avi Dichter somehow escaped that fate. Nir Barkat, who led in polls of Likud primary voters as Netanyahu’s successor, came in only sixth despite the enormous sums he spent – several times more per voter than any other candidate. Nothing remains of the Top 5 from 2019: Gideon Sa’ar saw which way the wind was blowing and quit the party 18 months ago. Gilad Erdan made a smart choice by staying at the United Nations. It’s doubtful that he will have anywhere to come back to.

Political posters in Jerusalem, ahead of the Likud primary election.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

The last few days, realizing how bad his situation was, Hanegbi resorted to groveling TV appearances, and online he pushed a video in which he spoke about how proud he was to stand behind Netanyahu in a particularly notorious speech at the Jerusalem District Court. It was too little, too late, and too clumsy. Dichter, who also realized which way the winds are blowing, adopted the gutter language the Bibi-ists like so much when he repeated recently the lies about what allegedly is in Benny Gantz’s cellphone. That’s how low he stooped to curry favor with Likud primary voters.

Many of the candidates aren’t happy with what they found themselves saying, but they scuttle around the country, meet voters, hear them out and understand the zeitgeist. “This is the new Likud,” Netanyahu’s people declared Wednesday night after seeing the results of the exit polls which showed how deep the change was. A new Likud, or perhaps a Bibikud. Or to use a phrase we have already coined here, Bibistan, or Bibiland. Not one stone has been left unturned. When Sa’ar left to found New Hope, he told his friends in the Likud parliamentary group: “There are three possibilities: One, to speak out against what is happening and to take the flak. Two, to go with the flow and become one of them. Three, to stay silent.”

Edelstein and Gamliel remained silent. Others, like Katz and Hanegbi, crawled on their stomachs and groveled before the Caesar. That wasn’t enough for the Likudniks. Katz, the longest serving MK, the king of the Likud Central Committee and the most senior minister in the last Likud governments realized Wednesday that his dreams of succeeding Netanyahu have been swept away by the new winds in the Likud which threw him out of the Top 10.

We have already learned that nothing is irreversible. But this is how 80,000 voters ruled. It is not a passing wave. Corrupt and corrupting, conspiratorial Bibi-ism has spread into the party’s bloodstream, metastasizing to all its organs. The “New Likudniks” look like a sad joke from a distant past. The legacy of Menachem Begin was buried yesterday beyond the fence of Metzudat Ze’ev in Tel Aviv.

Netanyahu wants this extra power to get a better plea bargain. But even if that happens and he disappears from public life, nothing will change in Likud. The genie is out of the bottle and nothing can put it back.

The son’s lists

The Likud chairman should be more concerned than satisfied. Not that he doesn’t have reasons to be satisfied as well. He has managed to systematically weaken his party’s power centers using aggressive, legally suspect measures only he could employ and get away with cheaply. (Such as his decision to remove the selection of regional representatives from the hands of a few thousand Central Committee members and into the hands of tens of thousands of registered party members.)

Netanyahu specializes in cutting down potential “heirs” by pushing them down or removing them from the party completely. On Thursday, he completed another such move aimed at the remnants of the so-called senior party lawmakers, those who were supposedly too independent or too powerful – thereby, from his perspective, constituting a threat to him. All such persons were trashed. On the other hand, his minions, both male and female, people devoid of content or essence except groveling and sycophancy, were upgraded.

However, the king of New Caesarea should remember the lesson learned by King Pyrrhus in ancient Greece: One more victory like that and we’re lost. The coming election, everyone agrees, will be determined by two Knesset seats currently going to the “soft” right. You don’t entice these voters with Amsalem, Shlomo Karhi or Galit Distal-Atbaryan or even Ohana. A decade ago, Netanyahu would have removed such people from his vicinity. Now they are his most authentic echo.

MK Yuli Edelstein, in May.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

A decent person would not be seen in such company. If Edelstein has a modicum of dignity left in him, he should resign now. His road in Likud is finished. He, along with Hanegbi, Katz and Gamliel, have not realized what Yuval Steinitz understood. In the current toxic atmosphere that has spread throughout all party levels under Netanyahu and his first-born, people remaining silent have no hope. Steinitz wisely avoided the humiliation Hanegbi was subjected to. Maybe one day, the Doctor of Philosophy will discover some courage and integrity and say what he really thinks about the chairman and the gang surrounding him.

This primary demonstrates the growing strength of Yair Netanyahu, even next to his mother, whose power in the family triumvirate has weakened. Osnat Mark is known as the greatest sycophant to the leader’s wife, rushing from one TV studio to another explaining why Sara is indeed an “abused woman,” as the Lady defined herself in a twisted manner that shames all truly abused women. This made no impression on primary voters, who gave Mark a humiliating number of votes. By contrast, the darlings of Netanyahu Junior, such as journalist Boaz Bismuth, ranked higher than veteran MKs. Erez Tadmor, a strange, extremist creature with a shady past, the declared favorite of son Yair, received an amazing 15,000 votes (insufficient for a realistic chance of getting into the Knesset).

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his son, Yair Netanyahu.Credit: Aleksey Nikolskyi /AP

The brutal approach won, a product of a venomous doctrine the son taught his father. A clear demonstration of this came from the women who were elected. Keren Barak and Gamliel, both harboring reservations about extreme Bibi-ism, both moderate and serious women, were beaten. Who did win? Miri Regev. The more she matures in politics, the more infantile, coarse and vulgar she gets. So did the screaming May Golan and the new face, Tali Gottlieb, a lawyer who succeeded by using attacks employing crazed notions of the “deep-state” genre, aimed at anyone not meeting Netanyahu’s fancy, on Ayala Hasson’s obedient panels on Channel 13 News. Gottlieb is the personal nightmare of many women who were victims of rape or assault. She exhibits a puzzling identification with the sex offenders she defends in court, while offending the victims. Netanyahu welcomed her warmly.

Orli Levi-Abekasis with her father, David Levy, in 2015.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Thankfully, we are rid of another candidate used to yelling and self-aggrandizement at every opportunity, mainly in the Knesset. This is Orly Levy-Abekasis, the princess of opportunism and self-importance. She stabbed many patrons in the back after being assured of a slot on their list of candidates, after failing twice to get elected on her own. She gave a bad name to opportunism and political hitchhikers, before being cast on the dustheap of parliamentary history. Now she’ll have some time to learn good manners from her father, former Foreign Minister David Levy.

Lapid’s beginner’s luck

The three days of fighting with Gaza in which two Islamic Jihad chiefs were killed was an absolutely justified operation. It broke the equation that the Iranians were trying to set: The arrest of a senior terror operative in the West Bank equals a response from Gaza. This is similar to what Hamas did on Jerusalem Day last year: The Flag March in the capital was followed by rocket fire.

No normal country would accept such an insane situation. Today it’s completely clear that the lockdown imposed on thousands of Israelis near Gaza before the start of the fighting saved lives.

The clash between the Israel Defense Forces and Islamic Jihad ended quickly without any deaths on the Israeli side. Yair Lapid, who became prime minister five weeks earlier, drew conclusions from the errors of two of his predecessors, Netanyahu and Ehud Olmert. He ended the fighting after 72 hours when he realized that a long conflict would lead to unnecessary dangers for both Israelis and Gazans.

Most of the Palestinian dead and wounded, among them quite a few children, were the result of failed rocket launches by Islamic Jihad. Maybe when the Messiah comes we’ll get to hear Roger Waters, the selective humanist, wailing over the fate of 2 million civilians who are exploited and abused by cruel terror groups that run their lives, steal their meager resources to obtain weapons, build terror tunnels and then hide behind those civilians when they fight the IDF.

Cabinet members told me that Lapid was smart to let Gantz manage things. For the first time in 12 years, Netanyahu wasn’t present in the arena. Gantz is the leading security figure today.

It would have been a big mistake if Lapid had clashed with Gantz on security matters. From the moment he entered the Prime Minister’s Office he opted for zero friction with his defense chief despite the obvious political and personal rivalries. That’s why he made sure to praise the defense minister during Joe Biden’s visit, and why he let Gantz lead the military campaign. They were coordinated on every matter, big and small.

This was noticeable in cabinet discussions and in narrower forums. There was virtually no daylight between them, someone who was there told me. You could see that Lapid was giving the due respect and that Gantz respected the prime minister. When Gantz’s people took advantage of the fighting to pump out some PR for the minister, Lapid’s people rushed out a few brief statements. For the sake of balance.

Soldiers near Gaza on Sunday.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

The overwhelming majority of Israelis were happy with the way the operation was carried out and with its two leaders – even among right-wingers, including Likud voters. Still, Gaza clash fatigue has dulled the political aspect. Netanyahu wasn’t stung by the failure of the 2014 Gaza war, and he didn’t gain anything from Israel’s effective fighting with Islamic Jihad in November 2019, when the Israeli side suffered merely a few light wounds.

In a more sane political ecosystem, Lapid would have scored more points, in part for the deception over the canceled vacation and the government’s alleged unwillingness to act before the Tisha B’Av holiday. Then there was the calm way the preemptive strikes were carried out. This brought the color back to the cheeks of Israelis living near Gaza, chronic sufferers of rocket attacks.

Lapid benefited from beginner’s luck; no drone accidentally attacked a civilian area. The execution of the attack on the two Islamic Jihad leaders, and the intelligence that preceded it, went perfectly, unlike previous instances. Even Itamar Ben-Gvir’s visit to the Temple Mount didn’t escalate things. The same goes for the ongoing operations in the West Bank, including potentially inflammatory moments such as Tuesday’s killing of Ibrahim al-Nabulsi of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades in Nablus.

Lapid has strengthened somewhat, though not the whole bloc. The Yesh Atid chairman is the first prime minister from the center-left in a long time; the role itself and the fact that he has made zero mistakes give him gravitas he lacked.

Yesh Atid has the largest vote potential among the parties in the “government of change,” and Lapid won’t endanger that for the sake of smaller partners in the bloc. This trend could endanger the other parties, all of which are seeing their support erode.

Picture imperfect

The title of the most ridiculous event of the week goes to “which picture from the Lapid-Netanyahu meeting should be published, and what are the hidden meanings?”

On Sunday, for the first time in 14 months, the opposition leader bothered to notice that Israel has another prime minister. He wanted a security briefing from the prime minister’s military secretary. Lapid denied him that fantasy, so Bibi was forced to drag himself to Lapid’s office.

In the afternoon, following the security briefing with the prime minister and his military secretary, Brig. Gen. Avi Gil, the offices each released a statement on the meeting. Netanyahu’s statement of course didn’t talk about the briefing but about the sage advice he gave Lapid. Lest we forget, the successful operation was largely over by then. One way or another, both statements were polite and laconic, relatively speaking.

But each statement was published with a different photo. The picture from Netanyahu’s office showed him and Lapid smiling as if somebody had just told a joke. (Yossi Sarid once told me that when as opposition leader he would go for briefings with Ariel Sharon, they would gossip about cabinet members and burst out laughing. Sharon, he said, was far more venomous than he was, no mean feat.)

Benjamin Netanyahu meeting with Yair Lapid during the Gaza fighting, as Lapid's military secretary, Brig. Gen. Avi Gil, looks on.Credit: Haim Zach/GPO

In the photo released by the Prime Minister’s Office, the two look very serious. Both pictures were shot by the Government Press Office. This raised the question, how did Netanyahu get hold of the smiling photo?

I looked into the matter. It turned out that in an act of good faith, Lapid’s spokespeople sent a few photos to Netanyahu’s people so the two teams could decide which picture to publish. There was a debate. Lapid preferred the serious photo on the grounds that Israeli civilians threatened by rocket fire were in bomb shelters and safe rooms.

Netanyahu preferred the more lighthearted image, maybe to send the message that “the former prime minister” doesn’t really need security briefings; after all, he’s Mr. Security. The photo he chose showed a social meeting, not a briefing from someone more senior.

Lapid’s team suggested they continue the dialogue until an agreement was reached, but then Netanyahu’s team tweeted out his preferred picture. “We ended up looking pretty stupid,” a member of Lapid’s team told the prime minister. “Forget about it,” he answered. “Crooks will always be crooks.”

Kahana, corner of Eisenkot

On Wednesday afternoon, Matan Kahana and Ayelet Shaked met once again. She gave him an ultimatum: Third place on the new Zionist Spirit ticket, reserved for a kippa-wearer, will be held for him until the end of next week at the latest. Let him decide where he's headed.

Kahana is hesitant. If Shaked's party passes the 3.25-percent electoral threshold, this will likely give Netanyahu the 61 seats he needs to form a coalition. That isn’t the government Kahana wants to be a part of, certainly not under the man heading it.

Kahana clearly leans toward Gantz's Kahol Lavan. He has been talking with Chili Tropper, Gantz’s political point man.

Kahana is in a unique position: If he goes with Shaked he increases her chances of passing the threshold. If he joins Kahol Lavan he might finish off Zionist Spirit's chances and prevent Netanyahu from forming a government.

Kahol Lavan admits that Kahana can bring over at least half a seat of knitted-kippa voters who disdain the far-right party of Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich. In the meantime, Kahol Lavan is letting him wait. In the coming week, a month before the party slates are sealed, Gantz's party will decide whether to bring him on board.

One person Kahana met with recently, most likely to discuss the possibility of joining forces, was Gadi Eisenkot. The former IDF chief of staff, an incredibly serious and value-driven person, is the hottest ticket in the 2022 election season. He has promised to reveal his decision by August 15, Monday.

Former IDF chief Gadi EisenkotCredit: Hadas Parush

In recent weeks, Eisenkot has held meetings with his two suitors, Lapid and Gantz, as well as with Sa’ar. A few weeks ago he met with Labor chief Merav Michaeli at her request, but only because he didn’t want to turn her down. Labor isn’t an option from his perspective, something that didn’t stop Michaeli from marketing the meeting her own way.

Kahol Lavan believes that in the end, Eisenkot will opt out of the campaign. Others have heard him expound on how Kahol Lavan is too small to form a government, while Yesh Atid may be large enough but still doesn’t have a government, not even in theory.

Don’t rush to conclusions, an Eisenkot confidant told me. The picture is very complex. But don't worry, he promised, Eisenkot will make an announcement on Sunday or Monday. The waiting period is over and the party leaders will be free to complete their slates.

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