In key vote, Netanyahu quells Likud insurgency

In key vote, Netanyahu quells Likud insurgency

The collapse of peace talks and a new focus on engaging the party faithful brings domestic tranquility to Israel’s ruling party

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is surrounded by supporters as he arrives at a Likud party conference at Ganei HaTaarucha in Tel-Aviv, May 07, 2014 (photo credit: Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is surrounded by supporters as he arrives at a Likud party conference at Ganei HaTaarucha in Tel-Aviv, May 07, 2014 (photo credit: Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

A months-long struggle for control of the Likud may have finally come to an end Wednesday as the party’s key decision-making body approved a compromise between party leader Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his would-be challenger, Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon. The agreement leaves Netanyahu emphatically in charge of the ruling party’s political machinery.

Danon, a favorite among the party’s right wing, chairs the powerful, nearly 4,000-member Central Committee. In recent months, he has led a coalition of disgruntled hawks and other constituencies in a campaign against Netanyahu’s longstanding control of party institutions, trying to pass amendments to the Likud constitution that would turn the Central Committee, and by extension its chairman Danon, into the party’s most influential policymaker.

While the fight has been waged in the less-than-exciting arena of procedural debates and lawsuits — including before the High Court of Justice — the stakes were far greater than control over the party itself. Among the constitutional changes sought by Danon was an attempt to allow the party’s institutions to set the agenda for Likud’s elected officials, including on key diplomatic and security issues such as the peace process.

Put simply, the measures proposed by the right wing of the party would have made a possible peace deal with the Palestinians, brokered by a Likud leader, dependent on the approval of the party’s internal institutions, where the West Bank settlement movement enjoys broad support.

The deal between Netanyahu and Danon, brokered last week and formally approved in a vote at the Likud Conference on Wednesday, effectively ended the insurgency against the prime minister, buying him much-needed intra-party quiet as he deals with the fallout — both internationally and in the Knesset — from last month’s collapse of peace talks.

Both Netanyahu and Danon spoke on Wednesday to Likud Conference delegates about the importance of party unity, perhaps highlighting the relief each man felt now that the feud has ended.

Bosom buddies. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and Danny Danon (photo credit: Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
Bosom buddies. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and Danny Danon (photo credit: Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

The key stipulation in the agreement (and the most important “win” for Netanyahu) removed from the Central Committee chairman the ability to propose constitutional amendments without the party leader’s consent. Such a power would have given Danon immense influence over the very rules by which the party is governed, including how the Knesset list is set and what policy decisions are binding on the party’s parliamentarians. Danon would, in effect, have wielded a Sword of Damocles over the prime minister on both political and national-policy matters.

In return for retaining veto power over amendments to the party’s constitution, Netanyahu agreed to allow an omnibus amendment package to be voted on in a Likud Conference slated for January. The package will include many amendments that will all pass or perish together in the party’s Constitution Committee. Since Netanyahu will be presenting his own series of amendments, along with those of many other constituencies and interest groups unconnected to the Netanyahu-Danon feud, the prime minister believes the concession leaves him plenty of time and political space to neutralize any potentially damaging amendments raised by Danon or his allies.

Netanyahu granted two more concessions: he agreed to end his efforts to advance a union between Likud and Yisrael Beytenu, and he acquiesced to three additional meetings of the Central Committee by the end of 2014 to discuss policy issues ranging from peace talks to the economy. Since the union with Yisrael Beytenu has been a dead letter for months, and the Central Committee gatherings will only be permitted to pass declarative resolutions that won’t be binding on the prime minister or the party’s MKs, neither concession marks a meaningful blow to Netanyahu’s rule over the party machine.

In the final analysis, a longstanding danger for the prime minister — a potential rebellion in the party institutions by hawks worried about the ongoing peace talks — has been neutralized, at least for the time being.

Some of the groundswell against Netanyahu was caused by the perception among activists that the three-term premier has long neglected the party that put him in the Prime Minister’s Office. He has declined to call meetings of key institutions in recent years and all but ignored the party’s regional offices and chapters.

Netanyahu’s latest victory, achieved after months of wrangling support from long-neglected constituencies, reflects a change of focus for the prime minister. His new chief of staff, Ari Harow, is thought to have stronger ties to the party’s institutions than previous top aides Natan Eshel and the outgoing Gil Shefer. Netanyahu also successfully brought key power brokers in the party to his side, including Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz (who heads the party’s secretariat), Deputy Foreign Minister Ze’ev Elkin (chair of its policy bureau) and Coalition Chairman Yariv Levin.

Also, with the collapse of peace talks and a Fatah-Hamas unity agreement on the horizon, many of the Likud’s most strident hawks have shifted from advocating against what they viewed as the prime minister’s conciliatory policies toward the Palestinian Authority to closing ranks with what many of them now see as a national leader bravely facing implacable enemies.

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