If Benjamin Netanyahu didn't have Moishe Zalman Feiglin, he would have had to invent him. Were it not for that old scarecrow, it is doubtful whether the prime minister would have been able to wake the Likud Central Committee from its hibernation and get members to the polls Thursday to help save him from the problem called "internal elections." The moment Netanyahu started using the Feiglin threat, the central committee started shaking off its indifference.
If the prime minister wins the ballot tonight, he will owe his victory to Feiglin, the right-wing extremist who manages to generate noise way beyond his power in Likud. He is not expected to increase his strength by much, even if internal party elections are held shortly.
Despite Feiglin Netanyahu has recognized the right of the Palestinians to a state, frozen construction in the territories and almost didn't build in Jerusalem during the past year - and nothing happened. The coalition is stable and he is indispensable to Likud.
If, on the other hand, Netanyahu loses, he will claim the moral high ground and portray himself as the moderate striving for peace, opposed by a radical war-monger. Yesterday, in a press conference in the Knesset, surrounded by his supporters from the party faction, Netanyahu prepared the ground for a possible loss, describing the two-thirds majority he requires as "almost impossible to achieve."
Like Sharon before him, Netanyahu abhors dealing with party affairs, the contact with the job-hungry activists, the endless need to invest time and attention to maintain the wheeler-dealers. He remembers the damage the Likud convention of November 1997 caused him. He did not recover from that trauma (Likud in all its ugliness) until the end of his first term as prime minister. Postponing the elections would relieve him of all this disgusting stuff.
It's easy to understand Netanyahu. This may not be democracy at its best but if the center votes in support of his proposal, it will be perfectly in order. No disaster will occur and all this fuss about nothing will soon be forgotten. A loss, however, especially in view of his huge efforts over the last few days, would be deeply embarrassing. What would world leaders say if the prime minister's weakness in his own party is exposed? What would the Arab League foreign ministers, who are supposed to decide on Saturday whether to support the proximity talks between Israel and the Palestinians, think?
Netanyahu managed to enlist most senior Likud ministers and the Knesset speaker to his side. His loss would be theirs. His victory would be his alone - you can count on him for that.
Three ministers object to the move - Gilad Erdan, Yuli Edelstein and Silvan Shalom. They are watching from the sidelines. Netanyahu will remember this well, whether he wins or loses. Minister Moshe Ya'alon supports him, but Netanyahu's aides believe he is not wholly with them. Unlike all the ministers who called for voting for Netanyahu's proposal, Ya'alon has refused, at least so far, to be interviewed. That, too, is not lost on Netanyahu.
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