Anyone who happened by the Tel Aviv Fairgrounds on Sunday for the "festive" opening session of the Likud party convention might have rubbed his eyes and wondered: Is this the National Union? Is this the Tehiya party come back to life? Or is it the Mercaz Harav Yeshiva?
Hundreds of settler-types, men and women in skullcaps and kerchiefs of all sizes and colors, crowded into the hall and settled on the plastic chairs, leaving veteran party members no room to sit. Some of the latter crowded into the aisles, while others were left out in the cold, justifiably frustrated.
But the most frustrated veteran of all was Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu; he had planned to be unanimously elected president of the convention so that, down the road, he could dictate the way the candidates for the next Knesset would be chosen. He thought that the approaching elections would force the party delegates to automatically back him. He thought that his political prowess on the national scene would reverberate on the local field as well.
Nu, so he thought. He discovered that it's easier to defeat Shaul Mofaz and Shelly Yacimovich in the national arena than to overcome MK Danny Danon, his main rival for the convention chairmanship, who refused to back down.
Few of the settlers, who had been democratically elected to the convention, are likely to vote for the Likud. They care not a wit for Netanyahu or his ambitions. They came early and grabbed most of the seats to signal to him that he cannot do as he pleases in his party. The festive event quickly turned into a sweaty performance of heckling, yelling and catcalls.
"Secret ballot," these people yelled - referring to the way the convention chairman would be chosen. They were essentially spitting in Netanyahu's face; the meeting turned into a bitter disappointment and the vote was postponed.
Thus did the Likud, the ruling party, the party leading in the polls, open its election campaign.
A senior party official quoted former Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir who, after going through a similar experience, said "this movement is committing suicide."
The settlers' achievement was Netanyahu's failure. He walked straight into the minefield with his eyes closed, with no clue what was waiting for him.
Who the heck does that guy consult with? Who are the advisers who were meant to prevent this humiliation? How is it that they had no knowledge of what was being planned? And why in the world did they rent a hall that only seats 400, when the convention drew 3,700 members?
The damage can and will be repaired, of course. Netanyahu always finds the way to get what he wants. For the primary he'll put voting stations all over the country, and keep them open from morning till night if need be.
Of the 130,000 registered Likud members, only about 9,000 are settlers. In truth, they are a minority. But Sunday night they were the majority. And except for when Netanyahu spoke about Iran, they treated him with scorn.
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