Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu scored another dramatic victory Wednesday in internal Likud wrangling over his control of the party, and in doing so, he reinforced the stability of his governing coalition.
Several key Likud activists, led by Likud Conference chairman and deputy defense minister Danny Danon, were seeking a straight vote in the 3,700-member Conference against any future alliance or merger with Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu party.
The measure is popular among the party’s rank and file, who are wary of an organized Yisrael Beytenu “invasion,” as one Likud activist put it, into their chapters, party committees and Knesset list. While the party as a whole may grow as a result of such a merger, few power brokers inside the Likud would benefit.
But a vote against a future merger would have embarrassed Netanyahu, who leads a united Knesset faction with Yisrael Beytenu and relies on the party’s chair, Liberman, as his primary pillar of political stability in a fractious governing coalition. A vote openly rejecting any future union with Yisrael Beytenu could have embarrassed Liberman as well. Netanyahu’s supporters have warned Likud party activists in recent weeks that Liberman was liable to bolt the shared list over the vote — and possibly even the coalition, losing Netanyahu the Knesset majority necessary to hold on to power.
Indeed, without Yisrael Beytenu’s 11 Knesset seats, Netanyahu rules a faction of just 20 MKs, only a single seat more than his junior coalition partner Yesh Atid.
Danon’s campaign thus pitted the leader of the party’s hawkish young guard against its grizzled three-term prime minister in a public, high-stakes political confrontation.
Then, on Wednesday evening, just two hours before the conference in Tel Aviv was set to vote on the measure, the party’s internal court ruled that, according to the party’s constitution, the vote could not be held at the conference.
It was an clear win for Netanyahu, and it garnered veiled accusations over the prime minister’s undemocratic tendencies from Danon.
“I won’t offer any interpretation of the actions of the party leader and prime minister,” Danon said in a statement. “There is no doubt that ‘Likud-Beytenu’ is a ‘controversial marriage,’” the statement continued, “and, as befits a democratic movement, the majority alone will determine its fate. I promise that the issue of the unification with Liberman and his movement will be decided by the Likud Central Committee.”
The informal language, the refusal to name Netanyahu along with the naming of Liberman without his title, the veiled accusation against the PM, the reference at the end to the Likud Central Committee, all conveyed Danon’s frustration (or his effort to appear frustrated) in readily discernible political code.
The Likud’s 3,700-member Central Committee, of which Danon is chairman, is the key political entity within the party. It is empowered to change the party’s constitution and bylaws, and it alone can make sweeping political decisions about the party’s future alliances and policy commitments.
But the Likud’s Central Committee was not the body meeting at the Tel Aviv Fairgrounds. Instead, the same 3,700 people (of which only some 600 showed up, to be sure) are reconstituted for a brief gathering every few years as the “Likud Conference.” As the conference, they can choose new leaders for party institutions and pass changes to the party’s constitution by a simple majority; the Central Committee requires two-thirds.
In an effort to strengthen his position within the party, Danon has declined for several months to end the conference and reconstitute the Central Committee. He, together with a coalition of his allies and assorted opponents of Netanyahu, have spent several weeks preparing dramatic changes to the Likud constitution that would have weakened Netanyahu, forestalled the prime minister’s ability to conduct peace talks with the Palestinians and immensely strengthened the Central Committee, along with its chairman.
But in recent days it became clear that Netanyahu and his allies in the party had managed to beat back or water down into insignificance all of the key constitutional amendments that could have hurt Netanyahu or hindered the government’s peace-talks policy.
With the Likud-Beytenu vote threatening to limit his options domestically, Netanyahu decided to turn the tables.
In a surprise move, the prime minister’s allies went to the party’s internal court with a key claim against the Danon-led Likud-Beytenu vote: according to article 80 of the Likud constitution, only the party’s Central Committee — and emphatically not the conference — has the power to make decisions about any political alliances undertaken by the party’s leaders.
The very procedural mechanism Danon has held over Netanyahu’s head in the constitutional fight has now served to secure Netanyahu’s latest victory in the ongoing Yisrael Beytenu standoff.
No wonder Danon seemed frustrated.
To be sure, one Likud activist who spoke with The Times of Israel suggested that when the dust settled and the political wrangling had concluded, everyone, including Danon himself, had emerged a winner.
Netanyahu kept effective control over the party’s institutions without losing his maneuvering room in the US-brokered peace talks or around the cabinet table.
Liberman, a former senior Likud operative, emerged without the embarrassment of the spectacle of a public rejection from the Likud.
And Danon? Danon had precisely the chance he was seeking, to take a public stand against a Likud-Beytenu merger, to bravely champion democracy within the party and to speak up for the Likud’s rank-and-file, all without actually causing the kind of coalition rupture that might have exacted a painful political price for the party.