Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu triumphed overwhelmingly Thursday in a contest that had turned into a power struggle for the future of his Likud party. As final votes were counted close to midnight, officials said he had secured 76 percent support in the central committee for his proposal to delay internal party elections by more than a year.
Netanyahu had branded success in the vote as crucial to his capacity to pursue “a responsible peace process.”
MKs and activists who had opposed Netanyahu’s proposal – including rival and Jewish Leadership movement leader Moshe Feiglin – complained of irregularities in Thursday’s voting, but said it was unlikely that they would challenge the results. As final votes were being counted, Feiglin complained that the elections had been “stolen.”
No shortage of voters – or opinions – outside Likud’s HQ
When polling closed at 10 p.m., turnout figures had reached 81 percent of all Likud central committee members – a much higher number than was predicted even 24 hours before polling began. Netanyahu supporters had predicted that if voter turnout exceeded 60%, the prime minister was likely to carry the vote.
Netanyahu arrived early in the morning at the Tel Aviv headquarters of the Likud Movement in order to cast his vote in favor of amending the party’s constitution. Smiling before the cameras, the premier called yet again on members of the 2,500-strong central committee to go to the polls and vote in favor of delaying the vote for the party’s internal offices.
“We are a national movement started by [former prime minister] Menachem Begin; we are for the state and for the IDF and for true peace, and that is what we have to focus on,” Netanyahu said. “If the vote does not go as I want it to, we will have to dedicate months to an internal process in the Likud, and now is not the time to do that.”
Netanyahu added that “there is wide agreement with and support for this proposal among Likud members.”
The prime minister had worked hard in recent days to encourage committee members to vote in favor of the change, which would effectively delay internal party elections by 20 months. Formally, the vote was to determine whether or not the Likud constitution would be changed to allow the party to hold internal elections up to three years following general elections.
Such an amendment to the constitution required the support of a two-thirds majority of central committee members.
In addition to the 28 voting booths situated throughout the country, late Wednesday night, the party’s elections committee chairman, Judge Yehoshua Gross, okayed the use of four mobile voting booths in Tel Aviv, Haifa, Jerusalem and Beersheba to pay home visits to disabled central committee members.
But the use of the mobile voting booths was one of the factors that led Netanyahu’s opponents to cry foul, and Feiglin accused the prime minister of “stealing this election.”
In an Israel Radio interview, Feiglin asked, “Have you ever heard of elections without observers? With traveling voting booths?”
Members of the party’s right wing said they had been forced to argue throughout the day in order to get the mobile booths to visit homebound committee members known as hard-liners on foreign policy. Likud members in Acre, considered a stronghold of the party’s right wing, complained of a series of irregularities, including defective ballot envelopes, and even the transfer of their polling place to Nahariya.
Feiglin and many party right-wingers expressed concern that a Netanyahu victory would allow the prime minister to pursue a left-leaning foreign policy.
“It seems that Netanyahu thinks that a true Likudnik would split up Jerusalem,” Feiglin said. “This vote is about Jerusalem; not Feiglin, not Netanyahu.”
He added that “if, God forbid, his proposal passes, there is nothing to stop Netanyahu from doing what [former prime minister Ariel] Sharon did, only not in Gush Katif, but in Jerusalem.”
Feiglin’s supporters constitute slightly below one-quarter of the central committee, but are known for their efficient mobilization at the polls.
Likud MK Danny Danon, who has been one of the most vocal in-party opponents of Netanyahu’s plan, said that “the prime minister has been drawn into an unnecessary move because he doesn’t want the Likud to be an active movement that could restrict him on diplomatic topics, including the settlement moratorium and the proximity talks with the Palestinians.”
Danon, however, said that even if Netanyahu’s delay of the internal vote passed, party right-wingers would remobilize to continue the fight.
“Netanyahu enlisted all of his power for the technical process of delaying the council by 20 months,” continued Danon. “If he is victorious, we will begin a quick recruitment of new members in which I and additional MKs from the right wing will call on ideological people from the national front to join. Meanwhile, other forces will try to water down that side.”
No elections have been held for the central committee or for the party’s other governing body since 2002, in spite of a provision in its constitution mandating that such a vote be held among all the party’s 100,000 members once every four years. Netanyahu supporters dominate the highest ranks of the party’s official positions, all of which will be up for grabs whenever the Likud council is convened and internal elections are held.
Jerusalem Post staff contributed to this report.