Whither Israel's Likud?

By Alan Johnson and Richard Pater

Last week Israel’s ruling Likud party held internal elections to choose its list of parliamentary candidates for the upcoming national elections on January 22nd. Likud’s list will be combined with Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu roster to create a single list for the elections.

To the disappointment of some, the liberal wing of the party took a battering, as prominent ministers Dan Meridor, Micky Eitan, Avi Dichter, and even Benny Begin failed to make the list. This is blow to liberal nationalists that saw the party move away from the traditions of its founders. Likud’s first prime minister, Menachem Begin, and his ideological mentor, Zeev Jabotinsky, believed that, along with a staunch security policy, it was imperative that Israeli society upheld the rights of minorities and fiercely guarded democratic values like the independence of the judiciary. 

So what going on? Has Likud now buried its founding values? The picture is more complicated than that.

The Likud primaries were won largely by a successful alliance between two large voting blocks. The ideological religious settlers, in part led by the ultra-nationalist Moshe Feiglin, and the powerful workers union Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI). (The latter was led by Chaim Katz, the only Knesset member to be booed at Likud headquarters when the results were read out—and also the only victorious candidate not present.) Many saw the alliance as a corrupt deal. The Likud members who Feiglin registered tend to vote enthusiastically in Likud primaries, but favor more right-wing parties in general elections. The members from the IAI follow Katz’s orders because their livelihood depends on it.

However, despite the success of this alliance, it is far from certain Likud will be significantly different in government. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is acutely aware of how important it is to hold the middle ground, as he appeals to the electorate who are more moderate than the party’s membership. For many voters, the positions, identity, and opinions of the party leader are the only significant calculations, as this will overwhelmingly determine the future policy if they form the next government. 

Moreover, it is worth taking positions adopted during the election period with a large pinch of salt. In 2002 Amram Mitzna, the retired IDF general (who this week returned to politics to run with Tzipi Livni), led the Labor party by campaigning for a withdrawal from Gaza. He lost spectacularly, only to see victor Ariel Sharon adopt that same policy two years later. 

Whist in 2009 Netanyahu campaigned on strengthening the settlements, once elected he implemented a complete settlement freeze for nearly a year, an unprecedented move for any Israeli government. The same prime minister also endorsed a Palestinian state, something he was loath to do during the campaign. It is also worth remembering that most of the Knesset candidates selected last week were in the Knesset when these decisions were taken and none of them resigned over it.

In fact, whilst some point to the latest list as a sign of Israel’s lurching to the right, it is notable that only a minority of the newly selected Likud list are hard-line one-staters who express absolute opposition to a two-state solution. This situation was unimaginable for Likud for most of the time since its establishment in 1977. The two-state solution has irrevocably moved from the left-wing fringe to be considered acceptable across the middle and into the center-right of Israeli politics.  (Although, granted, it may not be politically savvy to overly promote it within the upcoming campaign.)      

Another criticism of the Likud right over the last few years has been the attempts by some MKs to pass legislation seen as anti-democratic, some of which threatened to undermine the independence of the Supreme Court. The backers of these controversial bills appear to have gained prominence at the expense of those who defeated the moves in the last Knesset.  However, it is reasonable to expect that Netanyahu will remain committed to the speech he made earlier this year welcoming the new Supreme Court president, when he said, “‎each time a bill comes to my desk that threatens to undermine the independence of the courts—‎I will shelve it.”  

In addition, Netanyahu has already suggested that Ministers Meridor and Begin could still be invited back into senior positions even if they are not MKs. There is no requirement for ministers to serve in the legislature. Netanyahu’s current government and Ehud Olmert’s before him, both appointed nonelected ministers of justice. A similar question mark remains over the potential reappointment of Defense Minister Ehud Barak. Although Barak announced his imminent retirement from politics last week, many see this as a strategy to be appointed as a nonelected, professional defence minister in the next government. The prime minister is acutely aware of the value of a senior minister who is trusted in Washington to keep this most vital line of communication open during the volatile period ahead.

In conclusion therefore, the new Likud list does look more right-wing that its predecessor, but the party’s key electoral asset remains its leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, who will continue to work to keep the party in touch with Israel’s center-ground voters.

Richard Pater is the director of BICOM Israel.


Photo Credit: Drall

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