Israel's Ruling Party as a Rowdy Militia

The Likud conducts itself like a militia, like a family in which the collective memory includes bad relations with 'the government' or 'the state'

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FILE PHOTO: Demonstrators at a support rally for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv, August 9, 2017.
FILE PHOTO: Demonstrators at a support rally for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv, August 9, 2017. Credit: Ofer Vaknin
Ravit Hecht
Ravit Hecht

The fanatic support of the Likud base for Benjamin Netanyahu stems from a simple, logical fact, stronger than all the vilification hurled at him by his opponents. One could accuse Likud supporters of infantility and mental laziness, which makes them defend their leader come what may, but a deeper and more rational analysis, which overlooks the frustration and anger one feels over the interminable Netanyahu years, actually reveals a shrewd strategy for survival.

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The Likud, even though it has been the ruling party for 40 years, not counting a few short breaks, conducts itself like a militia, like a family in which the collective memory includes bad relations with “the government” or “the state.” This family regards its leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, as a critical component for its continued survival. His removal by “the state” would be a fatal blow to the family’s structure, a catalyst for its dismantling. Likudniks are convinced that without Netanyahu they will lose control and remain powerless, becoming again a small tribe, dispersed and vulnerable at the margins of a political desert.

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Veterans of the party’s Central Committee remember with horror even the short period the party was in the opposition, during the Rabin-Peres and Barak governments. The uncertainty of a post-Netanyahu era terrifies them. They prefer Netanyahu over any untested option, even though most of them recognize his failings. Anyone suggesting to Likud members that they anoint another leader instead of the beleaguered Netanyahu is in effect proposing, to their way of thinking, that they go and drink poison.

The soft, fuzzy aspects of the family structure are seen in the ties between elected officials and party activists, and in the former’s involvement in the latter’s lives. Elected Likud officials claim, with much justification, that they work harder than MKs from other parties, since after 5 P.M. their schedules are always chock-full of events: weddings, bar mitzvahs, birthdays, condolence calls and so on. MK Miki Zohar has a designated Likud cellphone, meant only for talking with party activists; Culture Minister Miri Regev visits any activist with a broken arm; contender-for-power Gideon Sa’ar visits every party branch he can; Transporation Minister Yisrael Katz’s mobile phone is always available to any party functionary wishing to talk to him. One could argue that this isn’t the work of elected officials, but this is the Likud, which is built around familial-tribal circles such as the Georgian one, the Yemenite one, the Russian- speakers, etc.

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MK Miki Zohar (Likud)Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

The rough edges of this familial structure come out in the rhetoric of MK David Amsalem, the coalition chairman. He threatens anyone who goes to the police to testify against the family’s head, saying “no one will sit with him” (from his “snitch speech” about Yair Lapid, a key witness in the cigars-and-champagne case), adding that he would never want his daughter to marry a state’s witness. Amsalem may be making extreme statements, but even a Likud activist thought to be a Netanyahu opponent told me this week that “a Likudnik would never sign a state’s witness deal. No matter what evidence he had or what sentence awaited him at the end.”

State’s witnesses Shlomo Filber and Ari Harow, as well as Nir Hefetz if he joins these two, were always considered outsiders, despite their proximity to Netanyahu. They are not part of the Likud and they are easily marked now as foreign viruses that are attacking the family body. 

Two weeks ago, when Netanyahu was more active with the frenzy around the police-muzzling law, some thoughts and musings about a post-Netanyahu Likud starting floating around.  With the storm raised by police recommendations, the alleged attempt to bribe Judge Hila Gerstl and the bombshell of Filber’s turning state’s evidence, the few critics in Likud are trying to find a common denominator with Bibi supporters, joining in denouncing police and media hypocrisy.

The Likud is not a herd of stupid beasts, and anyone who sees it as such does not understand the syntax of Israeli politics. It is a family whose values, as openly admitted by Likudniks, supersede the values of the state, the rule of law, and pretty much everything else, too.

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