Netanyahu Frets Over Growing Strength of Right in Likud

Benjamin Netanyahu poised to take Likud leadership for fifth time, with Moshe Feiglin his lone rival.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu concluded his bid to be reelected as Likud chairman with the usual round of telephone calls to key party activists. On Tuesday, he is expected to be elected to the post for the fifth time since 1993.

For almost 20 years, he has been in the political arena, campaigning and fighting, rising and falling, collapsing and taking off again in an endless cycle. Politics are in his blood, government is in his soul.

Likud's Moshe Feiglin.
Alex Libak

In the rest of the Western world, prime ministers and party leaders who are unwilling to vacate their posts - who never say "enough" - are almost unheard of. But Netanyahu is on track to become the Likud's version of Shimon Peres, the perennial Labor Party leader recently elected president.

Even though Tuesday's race against right-wing extremist Moshe Feiglin is strictly a formality, Netanyahu would be loath to give up the traditional victory celebration at the Tel Aviv fairgrounds sometime after midnight. He lives for these late-night celebrations: the entry onstage to the tune of the Likud jingle and the cries of "hurrah for Bibi," the theatrical arm-waving, the pursed lips that broadcast strength and determination in the face of dangers and challenges.

He is no longer "the magician," as he was known in his first term. He is no longer hailed as king of Israel; he no longer prompts hysteria. He abandoned key elements of his former ideology when he advocated a two-state solution, froze construction in the territories and freed hundreds of terrorist murderers in exchange for a kidnapped soldier. But he is still Likud's unassailable leader, with no rivals in sight. He is the Likud, and the Likud is him.

Netanyahu will win a sweeping majority on Tuesday. The question of whether Feiglin manages to win a quarter of the votes, as he did in the last primary in 2007, or whether he passes the 30-percent mark is irrelevant to Netanyahu's status. But it's likely to be very relevant to the balance of forces within the Likud Knesset faction.

This, in essence, is the key problem Netanyahu will face in the months until the next general election: a strengthening of the extremist-religious right within in the Likud and an increase in the already substantial influence this right wing wields over Likud Knesset members and candidates for the party's next Knesset slate. A high turnout among the settlers, even those who aren't Feiglin supporters, coupled with a reasonable level of support for Feiglin himself would signal MKs that they must move to the right before they face the voters again.

The future of the illegal settlement outpost of Migron hovers over the primary. This weekend, two right-wing newspapers, Makor Rishon and B'Sheva, urged their readers to lodge protest votes against Netanyahu on Tuesday because the prime minister has unequivocally backed a compromise proposed by Minister without Portfolio Benny Begin under which Migron residents would have to move to a neighboring hill and their existing houses would be destroyed. "Protest votes" could mean either votes for Feiglin or blank ballots.

With the primary behind him, Netanyahu can expect to spend the next two months happily watching from the grandstand as the main opposition party, Kadima, bleeds on the carpet during its own no-holds-barred leadership primary, which could end in the party splitting. MK Shaul Mofaz, the main challenger to current Kadima chairwoman Tzipi Livni, launched his campaign on Monday with a slogan that leaves no doubts about his intentions: "Shaul Mofaz. Prime Minister."

This is an interesting, original, brazen, presumptuous and utterly immodest slogan. Mofaz is seeking to signal his voters, Kadima members, that he has already overcome the first obstacle in his path - "her" - and is now focused on the real battle to come, against Netanyahu.

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