Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu personally attended a hearing at an internal court of his Likud party on Sunday, arguing that the New Likudniks group within the party should be expelled in its entirety since it is a “Trojan horse” that poses a “danger” to the entire State of Israel.
Members of the faction say they aim to move the Likud back to its original liberal values, but opponents say they are leftist infiltrators, trying to bring down the party from within.
Last week, the Likud court decided to expel some 1,000 members affiliated with New Likudniks and examine the status of 7,000 other members amid a growing power struggle in the party. The court said that there was overwhelming evidence to remove those 1,000 members, but ruled against a demand to expel the entire New Likudniks group and said that members would be individually reviewed.
“We see here danger to the very existence of Likud, and if it’s a danger to Likud, it’s a danger to the state,” Netanyahu argued during the heated hearing, banging his hand on the table. The hearing dealt with an appeal filed against last week’s decision not to expel the entire group.
Netanyahu repeated his frequent talking point against the new government headed by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, alleging that it includes right-wing parties that received votes “and transferred them to the left to fraudulently instigate a coup.”
“Now, we are seeing the same thing within the [Likud] movement: Joining it disguised as right-wingers and then elect candidates with leftist agendas, completely opposite to ours,” Netanyahu said. “I’m going all the way here and am not ready to give up on this party, which is the future of this country.”
Likud faction chief Yariv Levin expressed similar sentiments during the hearing, saying that he has personally rejected deals offered to him by New Likudniks.
“Numerous times, they have asked to meet me, including in recent days, with express promises to support me in the primaries,” he said. “I wasn’t willing under any circumstances to accept a few thousand votes to endanger our movement. I was unwilling to publicly represent people who think the opposite of me and are ready to give me temporary support and thus undermine the movement.”
The saga came as longtime party leader and former prime minister Netanyahu faces mounting dissent over the way he lost power in March, and a looming leadership challenge.
Some of the parties that joined the coalition that eventually ousted Netanyahu from power are politically aligned with Likud, but refused to enter a government with the party if it were still being led by Netanyahu, who is on trial in three corruption cases, and has for years shunned Likud lawmakers perceived as posing a threat to his leadership of the party.
The New Likudniks, founded in 2011 after mass protests over the cost of living, say they are seeking to push “the economic interests of the middle class” and the “preservation of liberal democracy” from within the party. The faction does not take a position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The group saw a surge of support at the start of nationwide protests against Netanyahu over his corruption cases, and Netanyahu and his allies have repeatedly accused it of seeking to move the party leftward and push him out as its leader, saying members of the group are undercover leftists desperately seeking to compensate for their diminished status in Israeli politics.
Members of the New Likudniks have played into this criticism. Numerous members and even officials have told Israeli reporters that they are voters of the left-wing Meretz party and have no intention of voting for Likud in a general election.
Netanyahu last week used the case to slam rival Israel Katz, the powerful former finance minister and chair of the party secretariat.
In a Facebook post attached to a video of an old news interview, in which New Likudnik members acknowledged supporting Meretz, Netanyahu said the “New Likudniks are radical leftists acting as a Trojan horse to destroy Likud from within.”
He then accused Katz of collaborating with the group.
“While most Likud members are struggling against this movement, there are some who prefer to use them for votes in the primaries at the expense of the state and the party,” Netanyahu wrote, alluding to Katz. “I expected all Likud members, including the party leaders, to use all their power to work to expel them from the movement. Everyone did this except for Israel Katz, who has worked in the opposite direction.”
Katz is widely expected to challenge Netanyahu for the party leadership when primaries are held, although he has yet to declare this officially. However, he has been openly critical of Netanyahu, accusing him of choosing to lead Likud into the opposition, rather than let someone else lead the party and keep it in power.
So far, only former health minister Yuli Edelstein has declared his candidacy to challenge Netanyahu. No date has been set for the primaries.
Despite the turmoil in the party, support for Netanyahu remains strong and his most open challengers do not have a lot of support, even if he were to quit the party.
A recent TV poll found former Mossad chief Yossi Cohen is the Likud voters’ preferred candidate to succeed Netanyahu if the former premier left politics. Cohen has not yet formally entered the political arena.
Asked who they would back as Likud leader if Netanyahu were to retire, 27 percent of Likud respondents said Cohen, followed by Likud MK Nir Barkat with 16%, according to the Channel 12 news poll.
After Barkat, the poll gave Israel’s Ambassador to the United Nations Gilad Erdan the backing of 8% of respondents, followed by Katz with 5% and Edelstein with 5%.