Internal Likud fight could shift Israel’s balance of power

A fierce battle is raging for control of the ruling party — and the country’s political future hangs in the balance

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

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu waves to supporters after the exit polls in the general elections were announced, January 22, 2013. Standing to his left, applauding, is Likud MK Danny Danon. (Photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu waves to supporters after the exit polls in the general elections were announced, January 22, 2013. Standing to his left, applauding, is Likud MK Danny Danon. (Photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

A pitched battle is underway for control of the institutions and agenda of Israel’s ruling party, pitting a long-entrenched prime minister against the party’s hawkish right wing and an ambitious young politician.

Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon has been threatening to resign his post if the government goes ahead with the fourth release of Palestinian prisoners next weekend in the framework of US-led peace talks.

On Thursday, the deputy minister, No. 9 on the party list, more or less openly threatened to depose Benjamin Netanyahu, the party leader and the country’s second-longest serving prime minister, if he adopts the American framework proposal for the talks.

Danon’s blustering threats, repeated most recently Sunday morning on Israel Radio, are born of more than ideology. Largely ignored by the media and unseen by the public, Netanyahu and Danon are engaged in a fierce battle for control of the Likud’s key institutions. And given the fact that political party constitutions are legally binding on party officials, he who controls a party’s constitution wields profound influence over government leaders.

The timing of Danon’s threatened resignation — “Did he not notice the previous three prisoner releases?” a source close to Netanyahu said last week — is seen by his opponents as an attempt to preempt Netanyahu’s plans to fire him. While Danon has denied the prime minister has such plans, sources close to Netanyahu have confirmed it repeatedly over the past week.

Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon on Wednesday, March 19, 2014. (photo credit: Flash 90)
Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon on Wednesday, March 19, 2014. (photo credit: Flash 90)

Netanyahu has many reasons for wanting to remove Danon from his government post. Danon was the only member of the government not to cast a vote in favor of the ultra-Orthodox draft bill two weeks ago. Moreover, he is not seen by Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon as capable of managing the Home Front Defense portfolio, which Ya’alon and others are pushing to return to the Defense Ministry under the deputy minister’s oversight. But those reasons are secondary to Netanyahu’s most significant gripe against his deputy defense minister: the latter has become the most active and dangerous agitator against the prime minister inside his own party.

The battle over the veto

Last year, Danon, freshly elected to the powerful post of chairman of the Likud’s Central Committee, began to build a coalition inside the party to challenge Netanyahu’s previously unassailable rule.

Having taken the reins of what was ostensibly the party’s paramount institution, Danon set about asserting the power the Central Committee once enjoyed in the party.

“The Central Committee has always been the main Likud Party institution responsible for setting policy, and I would like to keep it that way,” Danon told The Times of Israel Sunday.

With many Likud activists worried about Netanyahu’s seeming willingness to cede territory for peace, and veteran party activists angered by plans to merge the party with Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu party, Danon found fertile ground for a new political coalition.

To win the support of the two camps, who form a large part of the party’s 3,800-member Central Committee, Danon and some of his supporters tried to advance changes to the party constitution, including a straight up-or-down vote on a merger with Yisrael Beytenu, an amendment that would oust any party leader who acts in defiance of policy decisions passed in the Central Committee, and even an increase to the electoral threshold a party leader must win for a third consecutive term.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives at a Likud party conference in Tel Aviv in December 2013 (photo credit: Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives at a Likud party conference in Tel Aviv in December 2013 (photo credit: Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

The measures proposed by the various anti-Netanyahu factions, many of which were buried in an avalanche of proposed changes to the party constitution last December, were a flagrant challenge to Netanyahu’s authority as a two-consecutive-term party chairman.

But the key demand of the Danon-led coalition, advanced most eagerly by Danon himself, was the end to the party leader’s line-item veto of the Central Committee’s agenda, a power granted during Netanyahu’s first term as prime minister in the late 90s when he faced a similar Central Committee challenge by its then-chairman Maxim Levy.

If Netanyahu loses the right to that veto, it will for all intents and purposes go to Danon himself, as chairman of the committee.

The Central Committee is an important center of power in the party, tasked with defining policy, setting procedures or even ousting leaders. And Netanyahu has done a poor job in recent years of engaging with party activists and institutions — indeed, party leaders, once they reach the apex of the party hierarchy, often see it as their interest to weaken and ignore party institutions.

That gap between the leader and the party’s activist base has left Danon able to demand a more “democratic” regime for the Likud. “As I said before, I am extremely proud of the democratic nature of our party,” he told The Times of Israel Sunday, when asked about the question of democracy in Likud institutions. “Unfortunately, this is a very rare occurrence in today’s political scene,” he added. “I hope to continue to work together with the many members of the Likud to keep it that way.”

One should not underestimate the significance of these apparently procedural changes. In a party with major constituencies opposed in principle to any territorial withdrawal, and in a political system like Israel’s in which a party’s constitution is legally binding on its senior officials, any leader of an ideologically divided party who loses control of the party’s constitution-writing institutions is effectively unable to govern either the party or the country.

But Netanyahu didn’t get to be Israel’s second-longest serving leader by retreating in the face of such a challenge.

When Danon placed a straight up-or-down vote on a merger with Yisrael Beytenu on the Central Committee agenda in December, Netanyahu went to the Likud’s internal court – just hours before the scheduled vote – arguing that agenda items can’t be advanced in the committee without his consent.

Netanyahu won the day in the internal court, delaying the vote. In response, Danon sued – ironically, he was forced to sue the Likud itself – in district court, which overturned the internal court decision. Netanyahu then appealed to the High Court of Justice, which ruled last month, rather unhelpfully, that Netanyahu would continue to set the agenda of the Central Committee, but that Danon could present an alternate agenda. The High Court did not rule on the all-important procedural question — the devil is always in the details in such things — of the order in which the different agendas should be presented.

If Netanyahu’s agenda can be presented first and alone for an up-or-down vote, then Netanyahu effectively retains control of the party’s most powerful institution. If different agenda items can be presented concurrently for a vote between them, as Danon hopes, then the Central Committee will gain the ability to choose to side against Netanyahu, and he has effectively lost control of the party, especially on the issue where he most likely lacks a majority: the peace talks.

And so the High Court victory, if it was a victory at all, is only a momentary respite for Netanyahu. The party’s Constitution Committee, which Danon also chairs, has already proposed to grant the Central Committee chair the opportunity to propose his own agenda twice a year — or, in effect, to give Danon the opportunity he seeks to pass the resolutions Netanyahu fears. Danon called this suggestion “a good balance.”

The challenge to Netanyahu’s authority is thus very real, and the prime minister’s famous neglect of the party’s faithful is seen as the very reason Danon is able to challenge the party leader so brazenly.

The anti-Danon blowback

But Netanyahu is not without powerful friends in the party he leads. In January, Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz, who heads the party’s secretariat, suggested a new strategy for heading off the Danon challenge, focused on winning both the hawks and the Liberman opponents away from Danon.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (center) with Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz (right) inaugurating Sderot's train station in December 2013. (photo credit: Kobi Gideon /GPO/FLASH90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (center) with Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz (right) inaugurating Sderot’s train station in December 2013. (photo credit: Kobi Gideon /GPO/FLASH90)

Danon’s power rests in a coalition of rightists who oppose territorial withdrawal and veteran activists who oppose a merger with Yisrael Beytenu. Give each group what they want, Katz reasoned, and the coalition itself might crumble.

Netanyahu quickly gave up any plans to merge with Yisrael Beytenu. The fact that the Likud’s constitution demands an absolute majority of the 3,800 Central Committee members to approve a merger (only 600 members even showed up to the last meeting in December) made this easy.

Meanwhile, Netanyahu has called a party conference for March 31 to debate diplomatic issues and give voice to the party’s hawkish wing, while also working to relocate the debate from the Central Committee under Danon to the party’s Policy Bureau, a forum chaired by Deputy Foreign Minister Ze’ev Elkin. Elkin, like Danon, is considered a member of the hawkish young guard, but Elkin has made a name for himself in the party as one who can straddle the political line between the hawks and the Netanyahu camp.

In his push against Netanyahu, Danon may have rallied many Likud activists to his banner, but he has also made new adversaries. Many Likud MKs and ministers, even some of the more hawkish ones who agree with Danon on the issues, are now working against moving the veto from Netanyahu to the deputy defense minister, fearing that if the Central Committee chairman gets a tool of such immense procedural power he will be able to exact significant political concessions from the prime minister, including potentially a senior ministerial post.

In recent weeks, with his coalition weakened by the removal of the Yisrael Beytenu merger from the agenda and Netanyahu’s new willingness to entertain meaningful policy debate in the party’s institutions, Danon has understood that he is engaged in a fight for his political life. If he loses in his battle to weaken a sitting prime minister, a victorious Netanyahu would have the means and the motive to exact painful vengeance.

So Danon is now working hard to rebuild his coalition. In recent weeks he has asked committee members to send him suggestions for constitutional amendments, and begun to build a popular agenda from these suggestions — popular, that is, in the committee itself.

Where Netanyahu promised there would not be a merger with Yisrael Beytenu, Danon is now proposing an up-or-down vote on disallowing such a joint list in any future election.

Danon is also now demanding a full Central Committee debate on the peace talks, and a vote on the party’s position vis-a-vis the talks — a vote that Netanyahu could well lose and that could have legal consequences constraining his ability to conduct the talks.

And finally, Danon has deployed what party insiders are calling his “nuclear option” — a proposal to hold a vote in the Central Committee on changing the party’s primary system, returning the power to choose the Likud’s Knesset list back to the Central Committee. The Likud Central Committee was once a byword in Israeli politics for endemic corruption, and saw its power to choose the Knesset list removed for that reason. The party’s leadership is now chosen by the entire party membership in primaries that attract tens of thousands of voters. Many Central Committee members, however, yearn for the days when they were members of an exclusive club who could determine the fate of the country’s most senior ministers.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon (second from right) and Deputy Foreign Minister Ze'ev Elkin (third from right) at a Rosh Hashana celebration in 2011. (Photo credit: Itzik Biran/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon (second from right) and Deputy Foreign Minister Ze’ev Elkin (third from right) at a Rosh Hashana celebration in 2011. (Photo credit: Itzik Biran/Flash90)

For his part, Danon is playing down the personal fight with the prime minister, arguing for an empowered Central Committee rather than an empowered Central Committee chair.

“There are a number of proposals being suggested about how the party should choose its [Knesset] slate,” he told The Times of Israel Sunday, confirming the new debate about changing the party primary method, but in language that does not imply his own initiative.

Similarly, “the Central Committee has always been the main Likud party institution responsible for setting policy and I would like to keep it that way. This is why there should be a debate and vote on the Kerry proposals that as of right now appear to be at odds with the current party policy,” he said laconically, without noting what this might mean for Netanyahu’s political maneuvering room in the peace talks.

Danon’s latest moves are a make-or-break gambit. He seems bent on either wresting control of a key instrument of party control from Netanyahu, or making bitter enemies of much of the party leadership in the attempt.

His determination is evident in some of the measures proposed. Forcing a breakup of the joint Knesset list with Yisrael Beytenu, even if it only takes effect in a future government, could weaken the Likud’s chances at remaining the ruling party. Meanwhile, Danon won’t be bringing an actual primaries reform to the Central Committee, but only a discussion on it. He could not enact such a vote without the approval of the Constitution Committee, where he almost certainly lacks a majority for such a sweeping change in the party’s basic structure.

Indeed, Danon himself may not support the primaries change, as he has flourished more than most among the party’s primaries voters.

There is one final point being raised by Likud insiders, both supporters and opponents of Netanyahu. If he loses the veto over the party institutions to a hawk like Danon, Netanyahu’s willingness to push a Sharon-style abandonment of the party might increase. Netanyahu is loath to leave his sure spot at the head of his party, which has been his political home for his entire adult life. The damage to the Likud is also likely to be immense. Danon may be popular among party activists, but none of the young Likud hawks are popular in the broader public, even on the right. But Netanyahu might nevertheless refuse to remain in a party that actively constrains his ability to govern and make decisions on the country’s future, including in the peace talks with the Palestinians.

You can’t fire me, I quit

The Prime Minister’s Office is refusing to comment on Danon’s threats to resign — indeed, the PM’s representatives are refusing to speak publicly on the party fight at all — but insiders and sources very close to Netanyahu have been saying since early last week that the prime minister was planning on firing Danon before Danon announced his intention to resign. Indeed, they say, Danon’s sudden militancy is a facade intended to hide his coming ouster from the Defense Ministry.

Danon’s brief tenure at the ministry has been difficult. He is untrusted by Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, many sources confirm and Ya’alon refuses to deny, who has pushed him out of any decision-making role and refuses to give him any meaningful areas of responsibility. With plans underway in the cabinet to return the Home Front Defense Ministry to the Defense Ministry, Ya’alon is looking for a deputy he trusts to run a critical national infrastructure. Netanyahu, meanwhile, besides the overwhelming fact of the titanic clash inside the party’s institutions between him and Danon, is frustrated with the deputy minister’s repeated refusal to toe the line of the government of which he is a member.

Danon has denied the problematic relationship, saying he has “a very good working relationship with the defense minister and we meet regularly to discuss the areas of my responsibility in the ministry. At the same time,” he added in comments to The Times of Israel Sunday, “there are specific areas where we disagree, such as the issue of prisoners’ releases. Unlike the defense minister and the prime minister, I have been against this move from the start.”

To be sure, many Likud MKs agitate against Netanyahu’s policies from the right — the most notable might be coalition chair Yariv Levin, Deputy Transportation Minister Tzipi Hotovely and Deputy Foreign Minister Ze’ev Elkin — but none have earned the PM’s animus so thoroughly. Danon has done far more than campaign or complain against the PM. He has committed himself to nothing less than wresting control of the Likud’s most important power center away from the party’s chairman.

The result is the most serious test of Netanyahu’s influence in the party since he returned to lead it in 2005.

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