Rightists quietly taking over Likud

Right-wing groups inside Likud escalate efforts to register new members in recent weeks to meet party primary deadline.

Migron Demolition 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Migron Demolition 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
While the eyes of the Israeli political world were on the Labor leadership race over the past few months, changes were happening behind the scenes in the Likud that could have a significant impact on the future of the ruling party.
Wednesday’s Labor leadership runoff race is not the only event on next week’s political calendar. It may also mark the last day for new members to join Likud to be able to vote for the party’s next Knesset slate.
Unlike Labor, where members joined the party just three months before they voted for a new leader, the Likud’s constitution states that “members are eligible to vote for the party’s institutions on condition that they have been a member of the party for a minimum of 16 months preceding the date of elections and have regularly paid annual membership fees.”
Right-wing groups inside Likud escalated efforts to register new members in recent weeks under the assumption that the most likely time for a general election to be initiated would be the end of December 2012, when the current state budget ends. In such a scenario, the next Likud primary would be held at the end of January 2013, 16 months from now.
“Someone joining today means they would be eligible to vote in high time for the primary,” said Yuli Edelstein, the only Likud minister from Judea and Samaria, who has actively encouraged his neighbors to join.
“The numbers in Judea and Samaria are definitely much higher than they used to be. For all their anger, I don’t know a better way for an average citizen to have influence. Ministers already check who the members are, so [new members’] influence is nearly immediate. They don’t affect me on one side or [Likud dove Dan] Meridor on the other, but they have real influence on many ministers.”
While in the past, efforts to register hawks to Likud was solely the domain of far-right party activist Moshe Feiglin, his strategy has since been adopted by many activists who unlike Feiglin have a completely ideological agenda and not a personal plan to be prime minister.
At least three groups besides Feiglin’s Manhigut Yehudit have been working independently to register Likud members: One led by former minister Effi Eitam, another by Shomron Regional Council head Gershon Mesika, and the largest effort, called the Mateh Leumi Political Zionist PAC, which was founded by activists Shevach Stern and Natan Engelsman of Shilo with the help of Naftali Bennett, director-general of the Council of Jewish Communities in Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip.
Mateh Leumi’s director, David Zviel, estimated that over the past year and a half all the groups together have brought in as many as 25,000 right-wing Likud members to the party, which has more than 120,000 members today.
Zviel said he personally went to thousands of homes, holding parlor meetings three nights a week for the past 11 months.
“I told my wife this is what I have to do,” Zviel said. “We started going door to door, settlement to settlement. We bombarded each settlement with publicity, collected data so we would know our prospects, and trained student leaders to explain why joining Likud is the right thing for the national camp in Israel.”

A native of Israel who grew up in Johannesburg, he has sent English- and French- speaking teams throughout Judea and Samaria and to communities throughout the country with right-wing populations. He also encouraged people to register online.
When the government’s policies did not aid residents of Judea and Samaria, Zviel’s work was harder. But he told prospective members that it was necessary to join Likud now to have influence on the party’s policies in the future.
“We tell people that we don’t have a magic wand,” he said. “In politics, you don’t always get what you want, but that doesn’t mean they should give up their membership. If the Likud recovered from the Gaza Strip disengagement, the party isn’t going anywhere. We have to be there for the long haul.”