Netanyahu, alone at the top

By placing himself above party politics, the prime minister may have squandered control of the all-important Likud rank-and-file

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

Benjamin Netanyahu at the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, March 2013 (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Benjamin Netanyahu at the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, March 2013 (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

For years, Israeli political pundits have taken special joy in dissecting every political hiccup and obstacle encountered by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

In part, it’s the politics. Many of the pundits support faster movement toward a Palestinian state and the reversal of Netanyahu’s free-market reforms.

But it’s not just the politics; there’s a culture gap between Netanyahu’s perception of the premiership and that of his critics. Netanyahu brings to the Aquarium –- the nickname for the glass-paned inner sanctum in the Prime Minister’s Office –- an imperial touch. He thinks he’s in the White House, critics complain. Maybe it was the time he spent studying in the US as a young man, or the American and American-trained political advisers he sometimes employs to run his Israeli election campaigns –- with varying degrees of success.

Or maybe it’s the fact that his first election to the premiership, when he defeated Shimon Peres in 1996, was also Israel’s first direct election for PM, giving him the distinction of being the first man Israelis elected personally to lead them.

But even as Netanyahu has remained in the driver’s seat, his party hasn’t always made it along for the ride, with the Likud at times barely sputtering by alongside its fearless leader.

The gap between the prime minister and his party’s political grunts has seemingly grown recently, a fact which may be borne out by the results of internal Likud elections on Sunday.

In 2009, Netanyahu emerged out of a decade in the political desert, though his return to the premiership came without his party winning the largest number of Knesset seats. Israelis voted in a distinctly right-wing Knesset, but gave the centrist Kadima under Tzipi Livni one more seat (28) than they gave Netanyahu’s Likud (27).

Netanyahu was the unassailable premier once again – Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu, the third-largest party, would hardly choose Livni over Netanyahu. But his party wasn’t as lucky. Once again Netanyahu’s political fortunes were detached from those of Likud.

Fast-forward to January 2013. Election season. Netanyahu faces a confused left and a splintered center. In a field led by the neophyte ex-journalists Shelly Yachimovich and Yair Lapid, he enjoys the advantages of incumbency, including a reputation as a reasonable steward of the national economy during a global downturn.

The two parties competing for his natural base, Lapid’s Yesh Atid and Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home, promise voters they will serve in a Netanyahu government, that a vote for them is a vote for Netanyahu. The Likud suffers in the polls, dropping from 27 seats to 20. But Netanyahu, perched atop a temporary Likud-Yisrael Beytenu joint list with Bennett and Lapid (despite their interminable game of hard-to-get) begging to join his government, emerges victorious.

Maybe Netanyahu really is Israel’s first US-style president, winning the premiership again and again despite failing to deliver at the ballot box for his party.

But that history, that detachment from the party, is coming back to haunt him. Netanyahu famously dislikes the sausage-making of party politics. He hasn’t faced a credible challenger for party leader since Sharon’s departure to found Kadima in November 2005.

Those who style themselves prime ministerial material, like Energy and Water Minister Silvan Shalom, don’t have the backing in the party. And those who have support in the party institutions, like Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz or Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon, would mean the party’s collapse at the ballot box were they to garner the Likud’s top slot.

For better or worse, Netanyahu is alone at the top.

Which brings Netanyahu, and the country, to Sunday’s elections to the Likud’s internal institutions.

Two distinct elections will be taking place Sunday, one with sweeping ramifications for Israel’s national politics and the other almost irrelevant to anyone outside the Likud party machine.

The latter is the vote for chairman of the Likud’s Secretariat, which controls the party’s operations and financing. It’s an old-fashioned wrestling match between members of the party’s old guard. Incumbent chairman (and in his day job, transportation minister) Yisrael Katz is expected to survive a challenge by MK Miri Regev, despite the fact that Regev enjoys the support of the party’s top chieftains, Interior Minister Gideon Saar, Communications Minister Gilad Erdan and Energy Minister Shalom.

A large part of the fight has to do with the party’s poor showing in January. Saar and Erdan ran the party campaign, and have faced veiled threats from Katz that he would appoint an “investigative panel” to determine why the party’s electoral standing, and its finances, were left in shambles.

Erdan and Saar have not flinched from the fight, noting that Katz has controlled the Secretariat, and thus the party’s funds and operations, for seven years. The loss of seven Knesset seats in the January vote has meant the loss of hundreds of thousands of shekels each month in public funding for the party machine, a fact that will only make Katz’s “mismanagement,” as they see it, all the more dangerous for the party’s future.

In short, the Secretariat fight is as predictable a political contest as any political junkie could hope for, and as irrelevant to the future of anything beyond the Likud’s finances as one could imagine.

The second contest is more interesting – and more important for Netanyahu and the country. The party’s young guard, in the persons of Danon and Elkin, are expected to win in the race for, respectively, chair of the Likud’s Central Committee and chair of its Bureau.

The two institutions have lain dormant in recent years. The 3,600-member Central Committee, headed by retired communications minister Moshe Kahlon, used to choose the party’s Knesset list, but that power was taken away in an effort to clean up the Central Committee’s image after a series of corruption and bribery scandals broke among its members.

The Bureau is charged with deciding the party’s policy positions on issues facing the country, from economics to the Palestinians. It is headed by former health minister Danny Naveh, who left politics a decade ago, leaving the office without a leader, without a purpose and without anyone noticing its absence.

The race is interesting not because Danon and Elkin are hardliners on the Palestinian question. The Central Committee has tried to slow or stymie Likud premiers’ efforts to compromise on the Palestinian issue since the 1990s. In 2002, Netanyahu, then the leader of the party’s hardline internal opposition to chairman Ariel Sharon, famously engineered a vote in the Central Committee that declared the Likud opposed to the creation of a Palestinian state, humiliating Sharon – but ultimately not stopping him from withdrawing from Gaza three years later.

So it is hardly news that the pro-settlement right plans to “pull a Bibi” once again, wielding Likud institutions to stymie the current Likud premier’s efforts at compromise.

What is interesting –- indeed, surprising –- is that Netanyahu left himself so open to a political move against his position through the party’s front door, that the Likud’s institutions have been so utterly neglected in recent years by the party’s own chairman.

Even at the height of the rancor between Sharon and the Netanyahu-led ideologues a decade ago, Sharon was successfully fielding a small army of candidates, campaigners and supporters, often led by his son Omri, that kept him atop the party’s apparatus.

Netanyahu has done none of that. It’s hard to find a Likud activist, no matter how senior, who recalls a recent meeting with the prime minister or a phone call from his staff or supporters. The neglect is deep and noticeable. Netanyahu isn’t supporting any candidate for any party position up for grabs on Sunday – partly because he doesn’t want to be seen losing a vote in a Central Committee that he doesn’t control, and partly because he simply hasn’t taken the time to choose candidates.

While Netanyahu looks away, his staff offers confusing messages from the absentee chairman. Last Wednesday, outside the voting booths at the Tel Aviv Fairgrounds where Central Committee members were electing the Likud Convention, a temporary body that exists to carry out Sunday’s election, Netanyahu’s political adviser Gabi Kadosh was seen wandering around the compound with a list of five candidates Netanyahu allegedly wanted elected to the Convention. Central Committee members scratched their heads. Was Netanyahu fielding a list of candidates, or wasn’t he? If he was, why did his campaigning apparently begin and end last Wednesday? And should Netanyahu be worried that not one of the five candidates on that list was actually elected to the Convention?

Netanyahu may be losing his party, but not his premiership. The Central Committee does not have the power to bring down his coalition. At most, it may be able to prevent his reelection as chairman for the 2017 elections. So he has time.

And he has one more distinct advantage: the Likud needs him as much as he needs the Likud. If the two split apart, each will fare worse for it. The Likud knows its electoral path to power does not lie on the pro-settlement right, at least not for the next few election cycles. It cannot afford to face voters after having jettisoned a second popular prime minister in a decade over the prime minister’s willingness to take down settlements. For his part, Netanyahu, too, understands he is not as popular as Sharon was when he left the Likud in 2005. Without the Likud, Netanyahu is unlikely to return to the Aquarium a fourth time.

If he loses control of the party institutions, that doesn’t mean Netanyahu has lost control of the government or national policy. The Likud’s party institutions can’t prevent the signing or implementation of a peace agreement. Indeed, it’s almost a tradition for a grizzled Likud premier, on the cusp of some withdrawal or peace agreement, to face a young hardline opposition. The party has had only four chairmen since the founding of Israel. Two of them, Begin and Sharon, pulled Israel out of conquered territory and dismantled settlements in the face of vociferous opposition from party hardliners and political committees. The same two are remembered by the Israeli public as two of the country’s greatest leaders. Needless to say, Netanyahu wouldn’t mind joining that club.

But to get there, Netanyahu must retain control of the Likud. Sunday’s vote is not the ideological challenge it is being made out to be. Rather, it’s a wake-up call to an absentee leader, a warning that leaders who permit power vacuums to form cannot complain when they are soon filled by others.

Last week Netanyahu called his first serious meeting with Likud activists in a long time. The meeting is reportedly scheduled for later this week.

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