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The Silence of the Likud Lambs

Uzi Baram
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Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz and Likud MK Avi Dichter.
Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz and Likud MK Avi Dichter.Credit: Ofer Vaknin
Uzi Baram

“Silence is mire,” said Revisionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky, but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu thinks the great man was mistaken. As far as he’s concerned, silence is a necessary condition for the continuation of his rule.

Most of the leaders I have known didn’t like criticism. They didn’t like people to disagree with them, and often they cracked down on their critics. Shimon Peres was angry when he was criticized for the so-called “stinking maneuver,” a failed parliamentary attempt in 1990 to replace Yitzhak Shamir as prime minister. He claimed that had the maneuver succeeded it would have been called by different names. That’s possible. But when the move failed Peres was forced against his will to fight strong opposition from within the party.

When I was serving as Labor Party secretary general, most of the party members and I forced Rabin and Peres to give up the committee that determined the Knesset list and to promote an opening of the ranks. Neither one of them wanted to give up his control over the appointment of MKs, but they accepted the decision.

Nor did Menahem Begin enjoy the criticism leveled at him within his own party when he decided to sign a peace treaty with Egypt and was at the peak of his status in Israel and abroad. Yitzhak Rabin was also at his peak of his career in Israel and abroad when he won the 1992 election. When he announced “I will navigate” – to people with a musical ear it sounded like “Peres won’t navigate.” Despite his wishes, reality and his faction colleagues forced him to work with Peres.

Thus, the difference between then and now is not the personal quality of the leader, but the quality of the MKs surrounding him. Were Likud MKs Avi Dichter, Tzachi Hanegbi and Yuval Steinitz born indentured servants? After all, we have heard heretical statements from all of them at various points in their careers. What is the meaning of their present silence?

Dichter is not a product of Likud, so why is he remaining silent? Why have his headstrong speeches suddenly stopped? What is his conclusion from U.S. President Donald Trump’s betrayal of the Saudis? What is his opinion of the almost universal consensus (including in the United States, in my opinion) that if it were possible, the right thing would be to return to the nuclear treaty initiated by former U.S. President Barack Obama?

What conclusions does he think Israel should draw from Netanyahu’s clear failure to strengthen its position, in light of its reliance on an unstable president like Trump? Isn’t he capable of any soul searching or diplomatic assessments?

And how can Steinitz and Hanegbi hear the contemptuous remarks of Justice Minister Amir Ohana without exploding? Are they capable of identifying with the unattractive bloc of 55 that is preventing the formation of a normal national unity government? Why have they suddenly fallen silent?

In today’s Likud, a vague tweet by Gideon Sa’ar (“I’m ready”) is already considered the beginning of opposition, because he looks like a rare vision compared to the unified ranks of the Likud faction. Each member of the faction has undergone a process of self-censorship that enables him to recite on television pages of messages taken from the steamroller of former Im Tirtzu spokesman Erez Tadmor and his friends.

The silence of the Likudniks in the face of their leader deviates from Israel’s democratic tradition. A party like Likud should develop identification not only with the figure of a waning leader, but with figures who present alternatives and are ready to take risks.

However, Bibi is sentencing them to embrace Haredi leaders Yaakov Litzman and Arye Dery and radical rightist Bezalel Smotrich on their tortuous path to a disaster that they can prevent.

Many people blame Netanyahu for the impotence afflicting his colleagues in the faction. To his critics he looks like a tyrant who has caused them to fear him – but courage and independence are tested precisely in such conditions.

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