Netanyahu moves to head off weakening of his Likud powers
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Netanyahu moves to head off weakening of his Likud powers

Party’s secretariat, chaired by Minister Yisrael Katz, votes to impose oversight over PM’s campaign appointments and budget

File: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu talks with Yisrael Katz during a Knesset plenary session, February 8, 2016. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
File: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu talks with Yisrael Katz during a Knesset plenary session, February 8, 2016. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

A sudden battle between two Likud heavyweights is raising speculation over a possible leadership contest in the ruling party in the next election cycle.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu summoned Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz to a meeting Wednesday, a day after Katz pushed through the party’s secretariat a series of decisions that weakened the position of the party chairmanship, held by Netanyahu.

The meeting ended with a partial retreat by Katz, who agreed to suspend Tuesday’s decisions until the next secretariat meeting on Sunday, where members will vote to form a two-person committee consisting of Coalition Chairman MK David Bitan and attorney David Shomron to consider the new measures.

At a secretariat meeting in the Maccabiyah Village in Ramat Gan Tuesday, some 100 members of the secretariat, among them cabinet ministers and MKs considered close to Netanyahu, voted to impose term limits on many of Likud’s officials — most of whom are appointed either directly or indirectly by the party leader — as well as to require that all outside advisers hired by the party be approved by the secretariat. Those include campaign managers traditionally brought in ahead of elections by Netanyahu.

They also voted to appoint a special legal adviser for the secretariat who would operate separately from the party’s legal adviser, considered a confidant of Netanyahu.

These procedural changes amount to placing dramatic new limits on Netanyahu’s ability to fill the key positions through which he runs the party’s messaging and policy.

The Likud secretariat is the internal organ responsible for party operations, including staff, budget, regional offices and election campaign efforts. Katz is its chairman.

Netanyahu’s allies in the party charged Katz with backhanded maneuvering on Tuesday and Wednesday, and called for Netanyahu to fire him from his two ministerial positions, transportation and intelligence. They claim a Katz adviser told the party’s internal court last week that the secretariat would delay the votes on the new measures.

In WhatsApp groups and other online forums of Likud activists, Katz was accused of “treason” by Netanyahu supporters, who claimed he was attempting to undermine a Likud leader who had carried the party to three consecutive election victories.

But Katz alone could not have passed those decisions. While he appeared to retreat somewhat Wednesday following the meeting with Netanyahu at the latter’s office in Jerusalem, Netanyahu will have to contend with the show of force Katz was able to muster at the secretariat meeting.

According to a vote tally by the Walla news site, the secretariat members voting for the de facto weakening of Netanyahu’s powers included key ministers and MKs who are usually considered close to Netanyahu: Environmental Protection Minister Ze’ev Elkin, who also heads the party’s bureau, its chief policy-setting body; Bitan, the coalition chairman; Welfare Minister Haim Katz, who chairs the Central Committee; MKs Sharren Haskel and Nava Boker; and deputy ministers Jacky Levy and Ayoub Kara.

Cabinet minister Tzachi Hanegbi was the lone political leader on the secretariat to oppose the move.

Likud has a long tradition of unity behind its party leader. The party, including its predecessor Herut, has been led by just four people since the founding of the state in 1948: Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Shamir, Ariel Sharon and Netanyahu. It’s a tradition that contrasts with the major center-left party, Labor, which has seen 11 leadership changes in just the past 23 years.

But Netanyahu has also faced numerous challenges to his iron control of party institutions, including from former Likud Central Committee chairman (and current UN ambassador) Danny Danon, who once sought to strip similar personnel and policymaking powers from the party leader and shift them to the roughly 4,000-member Central Committee, the party’s main deliberative body.

Cabinet ministers in the Knesset plenum ahead of the vote on the controversial NGO bill, July 11, 2016. From left: Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Cabinet ministers in the Knesset plenum ahead of the vote on the controversial NGO bill, July 11, 2016. From left: Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Netanyahu’s long rule has also led some of Likud’s most popular leaders over the years to leave the party in frustration, including former minister Gideon Sa’ar, who has regularly criticized Netanyahu since resigning from politics in 2014, and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, one of Likud’s most popular ministers before he left the party to found his own party, winning 10 seats for his Kulanu list in the March 2015 elections.

Katz and Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan are currently seen as the most likely successors to Netanyahu, at least from within the party.

But Katz has begun to buck against the same ceiling of Netanyahu’s efforts to quash popular opponents who might unseat him. While Netanyahu holds on to the prestigious Foreign Ministry post, saying he still hopes to entice opposition parties into his coalition by offering them the ministry, Katz has repeatedly demanded the portfolio for himself, and is widely seen in Likud as leading the current uprising in party institutions in a bid to get Netanyahu to hand him the ministry in order to quell the challenge.

Among the key complaints about Netanyahu heard from party leaders past and present — including Sa’ar and Katz following the 2013 and 2015 elections, respectively — was the charge that Netanyahu’s tight control of the election campaign left other party heavyweights excluded from the electioneering limelight, and had the effect of leaving the party’s activist base and grassroots regional offices outside the campaign’s efforts.

The critics found a champion in the party’s internal ombudsman, Shai Galili, who published a report on the 2015 campaign that charged that Netanyahu-appointed campaign manager Shlomo Filber, today the director general of the Netanyahu-led Communications Ministry, overspent on the campaign, incurring a deficit for the party of several million shekels.

That report sparked calls in the Katz-chaired secretariat to impose tougher oversight over campaign staff and budgets once approved almost single-handedly by the party leader.

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