Netanyahu defeats Likud hawks’ efforts to weaken him

Proposed amendments to the party’s constitution could have forced him to choose between his premiership and peace talks with Palestinians

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

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90/File)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90/File)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faces two skeptical audiences as he moves ahead in the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks: international leaders who suspect he is not committed enough, and many of his own Likud constituents who think he is far too committed.

Resistance to the peace negotiations within Likud has drawn scant media attention, but could have placed insurmountable obstacles in Netanyahu’s way if he chooses to continue pursuing the US-brokered talks, up to and including his ouster as party leader and even premier.

Three amendments to the party’s constitution proposed by party hawks ahead of the Likud Conference, which is set to meet Wednesday and Thursday at the Tel Aviv Fairgrounds, would have meant Netanyahu could not pursue peace talks while simultaneously maintaining a meaningful grip on Israel’s ruling party.

The first amendment would have ousted any party leader who acted in defiance of decisions passed in the Likud’s 3,700-member Central Committee. It was Netanyahu himself who led a revolt in 2002 against then-prime minister Ariel Sharon and passed a resolution in the Central Committee affirming the Likud’s formal rejection of a Palestinian state in the West Bank or Gaza Strip. Though it currently has no legal weight, that resolution still stands. If the proposed constitutional change were to pass, that decade-old act of political brinkmanship by Netanyahu the rebel would come back to haunt Netanyahu the prime minister.

The second measure would have removed the party chairman’s line-item veto over the Central Committee’s agenda, a key power that prevents the rising, more-hawkish young guard of the party from undermining the prime minister and pulling the party rightward.

Finally, the third constitutional change proposed by Netanyahu’s opponents would have increased the electoral threshold a party leader must win for a third consecutive term from a simple majority to 60 percent of primary votes cast. While Netanyahu got almost 75% of the vote in his last primary contest as party leader — indeed, Likud has had only four leaders since the founding of the State of Israel — many of his opponents in the party believe his position has weakened since that contest and that he is vulnerable to a challenge, especially with the threshold tilted against him.

 If the proposed constitutional change were to pass, that decade-old act of political brinkmanship by Netanyahu the rebel would come back to haunt Netanyahu the prime minister

All three measures would have constituted a serious challenge to Netanyahu’s continued rule of the party — and possibly also to the government’s ability to pursue peace talks with the Palestinian Authority.

The forces arrayed against Netanyahu in pushing these measures were not inconsequential. The new Central Committee chair, Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon, has been a key force pushing measures meant to weaken the prime minister within the party, and to strengthen the role of the Committee.

Meanwhile, Netanyahu had a public falling-out earlier this year with Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz after the latter voted against the Palestinian prisoner release in the cabinet, leading Netanyahu to carry out the unusual punishment of stripping Katz’s Transportation Ministry of its national infrastructures authorities and transferring them to the Energy and Water Ministry under his ally Silvan Shalom.

The Central Committee, under Danon, has the power to change the party’s bylaws and constitution, while Katz chairs the Likud’s secretariat, a powerful party organ that appoints its professional staff and regional directors and manages much of its grassroots activities. Its leadership of the activists’ campaign to weaken the party leader meant it had a real chance of succeeding.

But by the beginning of this week, it became clear that Netanyahu and his supporters within the party had successfully maneuvered the PM’s opponents to a draw.

Following long and at times difficult negotiations in the Likud’s Constitution Committee, among other party forums, all three constitutional amendments were withdrawn and will not come up for a vote on Wednesday.

In part, this was achieved through Netanyahu’s allies’ proposal — perhaps as part of a negotiating strategy — of their own set of measures that would have significantly strengthened Netanyahu within the party, such as an amendment granting the party leader the right to personally appoint 10% of all party institutions, including its Knesset list. The pro-Netanyahu measures have been withdrawn alongside the anti-Netanyahu ones.

And, in part, Netanyahu has worked to mend fences with some of the rebels. A spokesperson for Katz told The Times of Israel Tuesday that the relationship between him and Netanyahu was “improving daily” after the PM held a “reconciliation meeting” with him last week.

A spokesperson for Danon did not return a call for comment.

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