The heads of Israel’s three largest parties – in terms of membership – devoted
their attention over the past 10 days to fighting against implacable enemies
from Tunisia, Morocco and Iran.
Reading that sentence you would think
that the Arab Spring had already reached Israel and that Islamist regimes had
united against the Jewish State.
Luckily, the foes faced by the leaders
of Likud, Labor and Kadima are all enemies from within, each within their own
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu stunned his Likud rival,
Tunisian-born Silvan Shalom, by advancing their party’s leadership primary by 15
Opposition leader Tzipi Livni resisted a challenge by her
competition in Kadima, Iranian native Shaul Mofaz, who was trying to use the
initiation of the Likud’s primary to pressure Livni to advance the leadership
race in Kadima.
And Labor leader Shelly Yacimovich found out the hard way
that the primary she won in September hadn’t really ended in the eyes of her
sparring partner in her party, Amir Peretz, who was born in Morocco.
do all these internal battles have in common aside from the adversaries sharing
origins in Muslim countries? In all three, the incumbent leader used clever
political strategy to preempt and minimize his or her enemy’s ability to attack,
and in each case the reigning party chief emerged victorious and solidified his
or her grip on power – at least for now.
Netanyahu already began planning
his effort to advance the Likud primary at the beginning of 2010 when he changed
the party constitution to delay a vote for a new Likud central committee. The
Likud hasn’t elected a new central committee in 10 years, so the vote set for
January 31 was expected to garner a relatively large turnout among the party’s
100,000 members who are eligible to vote.
The leadership race was
supposed to be held in spring 2013, within six months before the next general
election that is set for October 22 of that year. Netanyahu’s advancing the race
and combining it with the January 31 vote for the central committee not only
caught Shalom off guard and apparently guaranteed that he would not run, it also
ensured a large turnout for the vote that could give him a victory margin
reminiscent of what Hosni Mubarak and Bashar Assad once enjoyed in Egypt and
Netanyahu’s only challenger is expected to be far-Right party
activist Moshe Feiglin, who is running against him for the fourth time.
Feiglin’s support has gradually grown from three percent in the 2002 race to 13%
in 2005 and 23.4% in 2007. A large turnout could return Feiglin to proportion
and enable Netanyahu to downplay Feiglin’s foothold in the
Netanyahu told the Likud faction that holding the race next month
would enable him to focus on security, diplomatic and socioeconomic
Left unsaid were unpopular political steps that he would have
an easier time getting away with immediately after the Likud members gave him
another vote of confidence.
That’s why hawkish Likud MK Tzipi Hotovely
made a point of asking Netanyahu at Monday’s Likud faction meeting about two
steps the prime minister is said to be considering: Dismantling outposts and
asking a Likud convention to allow him to reserve slots for candidates of his
choosing on the Likud’s next list.
Netanyahu could use such powers to
make a deal with MKs who would defect from Kadima or possibly Israel Beiteinu in
the event party head Avigdor Lieberman gets indicted. But speculation has
centered on Netanyahu wanting to find a political home for his commander in the
elite General Staff Reconnaissance Unit, Defense Minister Ehud Barak.
prime minister’s response to Hotovely was purposely ambiguous.
that I never promised a reserved slot for Barak and I was never asked to,” he
Netanyahu noticeably spoke in the past tense, leaving the future
wide open. But Hotovely and her associates believe that thanks to the statement
she garnered from Netanyahu in the closed-door meeting, which she immediately
leaked to the press, the prime minister will have a tougher time making such a
Hotovely may have even given Netanyahu an excuse to do to Barak
what he did to former pensioners affairs minister Rafi Eitan. In return for
Eitan’s help in preventing Livni from forming a government following former
prime minister Ehud Olmert’s resignation, Netanyahu promised Eitan that he could
keep his ministry in the new government. When Netanyahu broke his promise he
forced Eitan to return to retirement, which isn’t such a bad fate for
millionaires like Eitan and Barak.
It was not coincidental that
Netanyahu’s call for primaries in Likud came less than a week after Livni pulled
a political maneuver in her Kadima faction to delay discussion of an early
leadership race until at least May.
Netanyahu’s associates said he was
highlighting the contrast between his bold move to advance his primary and
Livni’s attempt to postpone hers at all costs.
Luckily for Livni, she was
in Washington at the Saban Forum when Netanyahu made his announcement. Without
Livni, Kadima’s faction didn’t meet this week and her conveniently long flight
back to Israel helped her avoid having to comment on Netanyahu’s
She bought even more time by insisting on “consulting” with the 27
other Kadima MKs one by one. By the time she responds and announces that Kadima
won’t advance its primary, her declaration will have fallen from page one news
to a brief buried deep inside the newspapers.
Through her clever
political maneuvering, Livni avoided pressure from Mofaz to initiate a
leadership primary before, during and after Labor’s race, and now she has done
the same thing with the Likud. But Livni cannot avoid the race forever and
unlike Netanyahu, who lacked real competition, and unlike Yacimovich, whose
primary is over, Livni’s political future is by no means guaranteed.
again, is Yacimovich’s race really over? When Peretz got on stage at the
November 30 Labor Party convention in Tel Aviv and started delivering a fiery
speech, it looked like the race was back on.
But Yacimovich wisely kept
her cool. She sat stoically onstage a few meters from Peretz as he spoke, and
she did not react to Peretz’s speech when she addressed the crowd afterwards or
in radio interviews the following day. By turning the other cheek, Yacimovich
made Peretz look bad and strengthened her hold over the party.
battles in Israel are still a lot less exciting right now than in most countries
in the region.
But for 10 days, Israelis got their own chance to watch
their leaders take steps to hang onto power.
The Arab Spring it
But when it comes to Israeli politics, this winter has started
out pretty cool.