The day Netanyahu regained control of Likud

PM faces tough election campaign but now has his party behind him, as primary voters deal a crushing blow to the ‘contractors’ who long held outsized influence

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

Benjamin Netanyahu at a press conference in Tel Aviv, January 1, 2015. (Amir Levy/Flash90)
Benjamin Netanyahu at a press conference in Tel Aviv, January 1, 2015. (Amir Levy/Flash90)

Sometime early last year, Benjamin Netanyahu realized with a start that he had lost control of the Likud party machine.

MK Danny Danon, who chairs the Likud’s Central Committee, led a dramatic uprising against Netanyahu’s control of party institutions and tried to push through changes to the Likud constitution that would have weakened Netanyahu’s control over the party — and severely limited his ability to set national policy.

The story of the “takeover” of Israel’s ruling party by its more rightist wing, of the rising influence of West Bank annexationists such as MK Moshe Feiglin and Danon, of the party’s rightward “lurch,” became a recurring theme of Netanyahu’s third government, which collapsed last month triggering early election.

And there was some truth to this narrative. As he partook in US-brokered peace talks with the Palestinians, Netanyahu faced a constant stream of initiatives in the Central Committee to weaken him, including one proposal to limit his ability to run for a third consecutive term as party leader and another that would allow the committee to remove him as party leader if he defied its dictates on peace talks. Netanyahu successfully defeated these initiatives, but not without a struggle.

With the publication Thursday of the results of Wednesday’s Likud party primary, the prime minister has visibly and decisively regained control of his party — not only through a Knesset list in which his allies and party moderates gained ground, but in the crushing defeats that the Likud’s primary voters delivered to the organized pressure groups that have opposed him in recent years.

Likud MK Miri Regev (photo credit:  Kobi Gideon / Flash90)
Likud MK Miri Regev (photo credit: Kobi Gideon / Flash90)

The new list has not erased the ideological divide within Likud between those who support annexation of the West Bank and those who support a two-state solution — several influential opponents of a Palestinian state in the West Bank, such as Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, MK Miri Regev, Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz, and coalition chairman Ze’ev Elkin, made it to the top ten slots on the list.

The primary did not see any dramatic ideological shift to the left or right, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t mark another kind of upset.

Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon with supporters outside a Likud primary polling station in Jerusalem, December 31, 2014. (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon with supporters outside a Likud primary polling station in Jerusalem, December 31, 2014. (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Two significant figures dropped precipitously in the list. MK Haim Katz fell from 12th place in the 2012 primaries to No. 17 on Wednesday. MK Moshe Feiglin, who leads the “Jewish leadership” faction on the party’s right-most flank, fell even further, past the 27 slots publicized by the party on Thursday — and far past the 22-24 seats Likud is likely to get based on recent polls.

What makes these results remarkable is the single factor that unites the two men. Each leads an organized pressure group of primary voters that has had an outsized influence on Likud institutions in recent years.

Katz represents the Israel Aerospace Industries labor union, which joined the party en masse and votes in an organized fashion to keep Katz high on the list, allowing him — and, in effect, his union — to nab the chairmanship of the powerful Knesset Labor, Welfare and Health Committee.

Likud MK Moshe Feiglin (photo credit: Flash90)
Likud MK Moshe Feiglin (photo credit: Flash90)

Feiglin, meanwhile, who previously challenged Netanyahu for the Likud leadership and had considered doing so again on Wednesday, has worked for years to cobble together his own organized primary voting group, based in the more ideologically driven wing of the West Bank settlement movement, in an effort to influence Likud leaders’ decisions.

This strategy, whether implemented by labor unions or West Bank settlement advocates, has been dubbed “vote contracting” by politicians and journalists, and has been the bane of party leaders for years.

And the phenomenon has shown no signs of abating. Throughout 2014, as the popular Transportation Minister Katz (#4 in Wednesday’s primary) fought to open two new Mediterranean ports to compete with the existing union-controlled ports in Haifa and Ashdod, the Ashdod Port Workers Union launched a campaign to register its members for the Likud — for the sole purpose of threatening the political future of the minister who sought to circumvent their hold over the country’s most significant entry point for imported goods.

Similarly, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon drew the ire of some settler groups for IDF decisions to take down illegal West Bank settlements, and became the target of settler groups that sought to punish him by driving him down on the list.

Polls, political analysts and a long string of retired Likud cabinet ministers have all pointed to these groups as a damaging electoral force that drives party leaders to stake positions in the service of narrow, organized interests at the expense of Likud’s broader appeal.

MK Haim Katz leads a Labor and Social Welfare Committee meeting, on June 24, 2013. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
MK Haim Katz leads a Labor and Social Welfare Committee meeting, on June 24, 2013. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

But on Wednesday, these pressure groups lost badly. Ya’alon rose slightly in the polls despite the settlers’ opposition. Deputy Transportation Minister Tzipi Hotovely, another favorite of these groups, dropped into the mid-20s on the slate, and is unlikely to return to the Knesset. Yisrael Katz won 4th place despite a union’s ire, while union leader Haim Katz lost ground.

Netanyahu’s own distaste for vote contractors is rooted in the widespread belief that many of these primary voters will not support the Likud on Election Day. It has not escaped the notice of Likud leaders that the settler movement’s showing suffered so badly just days after a massive membership drive for the Likud’s main right-wing competitor Jewish Home. In a two-week membership drive, Jewish Home saw some 20,000 new members join its ranks, swelling its membership to 77,000, second only to Likud. It is illegal to be a member of two political parties simultaneously, so the simple fact that this mass-enlistment for an opposing party coincided with the dissolution of Likud’s right-most flank confirmed to many that the party’s right-wing fringe was not composed of Likud supporters.

Meanwhile, Wednesday’s biggest winners, whether experienced cabinet ministers like Erdan and Yisrael Katz, relative moderates like Ya’alon and Steinitz, or outspoken rightists such as Elkin and Levin, share one characteristic: all are allies and supporters of Netanyahu.

Wednesday’s vote produced no clear ideological message, but its political message was nonetheless potent. Likud’s rank and file, rightists and centrists alike, rallied around their leader. Netanyahu now heads toward an uncertain Election Day, facing a resurgent Labor and growing competition from Jewish Home on his right, with one certainty: his own Likud, at least, is emphatically behind him.

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