Although political analysts are calling it a stunning defeat for Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu, the strong showing of right-wing politicians in Monday’s Likud primary is not expected to derail Netanyahu’s hopes of becoming Israel’s next prime minister.
“It was a blow for Bibi [Netanyahu] because many of those elected were people he successfully got rid of in the last election,” said one analyst who asked not to be named because of his close ties to the Likud Party.
The man Netanyahu actively campaigned to keep from winning a top spot on the party list, far-right candidate Moshe Feiglin, ended up winning 8,000 of the fewer than 50,000 votes cast. But that was enough to earn him the 20th spot on Likud’s list and
likely high enough for him to win a Knesset seat.
Feiglin is strongly opposed to relinquishing any land to the Palestinians and favors imposing strong Jewish values on the country. He once told The Jewish Week that he would like to replace Netanyahu as Likud leader and become Israel’s prime minister.
On the Web site of his Jewish Leadership movement, Feiglin advocated cutting off water, goods, money, communications and electricity to the Palestinian territories. And any attack on Israel would result in the destruction of the Palestinian area whose residents were behind the assault and the deportation of those residents.
In another rebuke of Netanyahu, 19 of the candidates Feiglin endorsed landed among the top 36 candidates in a field of more than 140.
The Haaretz-Dialog poll conducted a day after the primary showed that if the general election was held now, Likud would still win 36 Knesset seats — up from 34 in the last poll — and the ruling Kadima Party would garner 27 seats. Its coalition partner, the Labor Party, would win only 12 seats.
Another poll by the Dahaf Research Institute showed Likud slipping to 31 seats from 32. But it too would give Likud the upper hand in forming the next government.
But the general election is not scheduled until Feb. 10, which allows time for voters to reconsider their choices amid the political campaigning that gets underway in earnest after next week’s Kadima primary.
And another Likud activist who spoke on condition of anonymity said he believes Likud will suffer at the polls because of so many right-wingers in a position of leadership.
“It looks like many of them are against any kind of negotiations with the Palestinians, and some of them are even controlled by Feiglin,” he said. “It looks now that our faction has moved too much to the right.”
Eyal Arad, a Kadima strategist, echoed that assessment. He said the so-called rebels of the Likud, those who forced former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to leave Likud and form the centrist Kadima Party, “have now become Likud. It’s such an extremist list that it doesn’t give any hope that something can be done’” to advance the peace process.
Nearly all of the top 40 vote getters vocally opposed Israel’s disengagement from Gaza in 2005.
Feiglin also helped to bring into Likud some new faces. One of them, Lea Ness, proved to be the top female vote getter, actually winning more votes (she came in 10th) than longtime Likud Party leader Limor Livnat, who came in 13th.
Another of his candidates, Gilad Erdan, came in third. He is a strong defender of conservative values and of keeping all of Israel’s biblical lands.
One of the candidates Netanyahu brought back to the Likud, Benny Begin, came in fifth. But two others he heavily supported, Assaf Hefetz and Uzi Dayan, placed too far down on the list to expect to get a Knesset seat. Another of his candidates, Dan Meridor, came in 17th and Netanyahu reportedly promised to appoint him to a prominent cabinet post.
Gilad Erdan, who won the second spot on the Likud list, said Likud’s inclusion of Meridor – who bolted Likud and then joined a Labor-led coalition that negotiated with the Palestinians – and Begin, who resigned from Netanyahu’s first government over his decision to withdraw from most of Hebron, proved that the party is pluralistic.
“We understand what the entire state of Israel understands: there is no partner for peace,” he said. “And if there was a real partner, of course Likud would be willing to negotiate just like it did in the past. The challenge of today is to restore security in the south and the north, and not to sell illusions” about a peace process.
Such talk confirms the views of analysts who predict that Netanyahu’s real headache would not begin until the day after the election when he would have to balance the requirements of working with the international community’s quest for peace talks and keeping peace in his party.
“The day after [the election], President [Barack] Obama will need to call Bibi Netanyahu — if he is elected prime minister — and the big rift in the Likud will start and everything will collapse,” Social Welfare Minister Yitzhak Herzog told Israel television. “The State of Israel will be under the spell of a very extreme group. It’s a very big problem. The internal political power centers in the Likud are completely influenced by an extremist group which won’t be willing to go along with any sort of political process.”
But Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University, said Kadima and Labor are trying to do to Likud what the Labor Party did to Likud after Menachem Begin was elected in 1977.
“People like [Shimon] Peres and the Labor Party establishment said Begin was a right-wing fanatic, which was what [President Jimmy] Carter’s people thought,” he said. “It created unnecessary friction. And the idea that Likud is a far right-wing party coming to power that needs to be stopped is an image that will have a major impact outside of Israel.”
Steinberg said he is confident that Feiglin would have no role in Netanyahu’s government and that he would be isolated. But Meir Javedanfar, a Middle East analyst based in Tel Aviv who co-authored a book on Mahmoud Ahmadinejad entitled “The Nuclear Sphynix,” is not so sure. He said he believes Feiglin would likely “embarrass Netanyahu, the party and the country on the world stage.”
“This will make it very difficult for Netanyahu to present an acceptable image to the international community, which wants to see balanced politics and progress in the peace process,” he said. “Israel isn’t an island until itself. Having politicians like Feiglin holding prominent positions in Likud could mean more doors will be shut to Israel in Washington and Brussels.
“For Netanyahu, the most important factor is uniformity and control within his own party. And the new ultra-right wing challenges that. They’re going to challenge Netanyahu’s position just as Netanyahu challenged Sharon.”
Just hours after Monday’s primary, Netanyahu sought to have the Likud Party rule that Feiglin could be pushed back on the Knesset list so that he would not get a seat. Should the party issue such a ruling, Feiglin was seen as likely to challenge the action in Israel’s courts.
To move ahead with any diplomatic initiatives, observers believe Netanyahu would have to rely on centrist and left wing parties for support. Said Gideon Doron, a political science professor at Tel Aviv University: “Netanyahu will enter into negotiations, but he will have a hard time getting a decision approved. He wants a grand coalition necessary to rule, and in this coalition nothing will get done. He will have to compensate with votes from the center and left for the votes he will miss from the right. It will be a big mess. He might not survive politically more than two years.”
But Yitzhak Katz, the head of the Maagar Mochot polling group, said a party’s composition in the Knesset “is not a decisive issue.”
“This is a tactic of Kadima” in the aftermath of the Likud election, he said. “I don’t expect it will catch on.”
He said the main issue of the election will be the debate over who among Netanyahu and Livni is most capable of leading Israel to face its security threats from Iran and Gaza. The economy will be prominent, but a secondary issue.
One silver lining for Likud and its right-wing shift is that the party may now have an easier time reaching out to the ideological national religious right that used to vote for smaller niche parties, according to Aryeh Eldad, a veteran of the National Union party who is forming his own secular far-right party this year.
“A lot of right-wing voters will look at the Likud, see Begin and Feiglin, and think this is the right-wing party we dreamed about,” he said. “But Netanyahu will abuse this power and negotiate over the Golan, Judea and Samaria. This is a tragedy that the right-wing repeats time and again.”