Analysis

Netanyahu's Party Gives Him the Rubber Stamp – and Underscores His Weakness

The prime minister is craving validation and reinforcement. Thursday's Likud meeting, which reaffirmed Netanyahu's role as party chairman, didn’t give him anything other than weak applause and a press release

Netanyahu at the swearing-in of the 22nd Knesset, Jerusalem, October 3, 2019.
Olivier Fitoussi

The Likud Central Committee that convened Thursday as a limited forum and far from the eyes of the media lacked any point. It looked more like a cult with few followers conducting a personal-ritualistic ceremony than a party institution seeking any practical or significant result in the real world.

Some 300 people, only a tenth of the committee’s membership, bothered to show up. But the person for whom they had gathered, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, didn’t deign to honor them with his presence. He understood that a picture of him facing dozens of rows of empty seats would portray him as he is these days, battered and pitiful. They want to make a mockery of themselves? Fine, but without him.

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The resolution submitted to the committee reinforced what already appears in the Likud constitution: That Netanyahu is party chairman and its candidate for building a government in the 22nd Knesset (which has less than seven weeks to go before it dissolves by law); and that Netanyahu remains head of the party if during this Knesset a government emerges which is either headed by or includes Likud.

That’s the constitutional situation. No one is questioning it, or challenging Netanyahu’s authority and rights as Likud chairman during this Knesset. Not even Gideon Sa’ar. In the same vein one could ask the central committee members to ratify by vote that “Metzudat Ze’ev is located at 38 King George Street in Tel Aviv, and is Likud headquarters.” It would be no more pathetic than one which was decided Thursday by “an overwhelming majority,” as written in the Likud spokesman’s announcement. (In other words, it wasn’t unanimous because democracy is alive and kicking.)

The reason for the insanity that has seized the central committee, which before the current Netanyahu era usually held lively debates on ideological issues, stems from the emotional state of its chairman, who in the twilight of his political life finds himself increasingly in need of embraces and reinforcement.

As long as the “unity” and “confidence” performances increase, the more his need for them is evident. The vote on Thursday (which was defined as a “show of support” – what else – in which the empty hall illustrated his weakness and lack of self-confidence), didn’t give him anything other than weak applause and a press release. In the event there are new elections for a 23rd Knesset, he will have to ask for another vote of confidence from Likud to serve another term as chairman. That’s what the constitution says.

Then there will be a demand to hold primaries for the party chairmanship. Netanyahu will of course try to stage a grab, as he has done in the past, with another dubious trick involving the party secretariat, with the general help of its chairman Yisrael Katz). Perhaps he’ll even succeed. He’s an expert at such underhanded opportunism and doesn’t lack for accomplices.

That’s what he was aiming for when he announced more than a week ago that he was “considering” a “snap” primary election to “confirm” his candidacy for the election for the 23rd Knesset. He was hoping that all those who consider themselves potential candidates would stand at attention and salute, so that the primary would be rendered superfluous and he would reserve his spot as chairman and prime ministerial candidate for who knows how many more years.

But then Sa’ar announced that he would contend, and Netanyahu, who doesn’t feel as sure of himself as he used to, hurried to drop the idea and suffered a few more blows. He tried to arrange an honorable withdrawal with an alternative suggestion that primaries be held “within a year.” That didn’t wash, either, which is how we got to the vote on Thursday night.

Practically speaking, this was a precise reprise of the Bolshevik “declaration of loyalty” that Likud faction members were asked to sign by WhatsApp to ostensibly scuttle any thoughts of rebellion or ousting. Netanyahu is a man of a thousand paranoias. From time to time he finds an imaginary “putsch” against him, cries out bitterly, and when it doesn’t come to fruition, he boasts that he thwarted it.

Exactly a year ago he revealed the alleged “plot of the century” by Sa’ar and President Reuven Rivlin to steal his mandate to form a government. Rivlin has proven to him, twice, how despicable that was on his part; once when he tasked him with forming the government two weeks ago, even though he didn’t have 61 recommendations and his Knesset faction is smaller than Kahol Lavan’s and with his unity government outline biased in Netanyahu’s favor.

Instead of apologizing to the president and to Sa’ar, he continued with what he is good at and made up another fake plot: That Kahol Lavan is counting on a revolt breaking out against him in Likud the moment the mandate to form a government moves to Benny Gantz, or during the 21 days before a new election is called. That’s why, to intercept these malicious thoughts on the part of Gantz and his colleagues or the crown princes of Likud, he had to convene the central committee.

In his imagination Netanyahu saw a thousand people applauding him. When he was given the number and average age of those who came, he made a U-turn and fled the scene of the disaster.

Who knows 21?

On Thursday, a few minutes after the meeting ended, Netanyahu was dealt another sharp blow. Knesset legal adviser Eyal Yinon issued a legal opinion stating that the effort by the Likud chairman to sign MKs from his “bloc” to a commitment that he will be their candidate for prime minister even during the 21 days before the Knesset dissolves, is of questionable legality.

In theory this is a formality, and not all the members of the bloc agreed to chain themselves to Netanyahu with their signature. Ayelet Shaked and Naftali Bennett, for example, refused. “We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it,” they said. This isn’t much of a drama; they’ll sign with Netanyahu, but why play into his hands and give him this relative advantage now? Let him sweat for the 28 days in which the mandate to form a government will be in Gantz’s hands.

Meanwhile, Lieberman’s suggestion for forming a unity government released after Yom Kippur ended looks like an idle move. Netanyahu will never give up his precious bloc with the right and the ultra-Orthodox. The moment he does that, he may find that they’ve also given up on him and will run straight into Gantz’s arms.

No one in the political arena is counting on Lieberman to bring about unity. But amidst the blame game and craziness that has been raging here for the past 14 days he’s won a point or two; his outline dealt with ideological issues, the economy, defense and social issues, while Gantz and Netanyahu are fighting over honor and position. He looks like the one pushing for unity, while they are moving away from it and the bonus: Likud’s immediate rejection of the outline, which portrayed his bitter rival, Netanyahu as the chief unity rejectionist. He couldn’t hope for any more at this stage.