Analysis: Politics, trouble on the home front

While battle rages on in neighboring countries, Prime Minister Netanyahu is engaged in battle for supremacy inside his own party.

June 15, 2013 03:53
BINYAMIN NETANYAHU strides the corridors of the Knesset this week.

Netanyahu leaving Knesset 370. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)

This week, while uprisings were gaining steam in Turkey and Syria, elections were about to take place in Iran, and a diplomatic plan was being hatched in Washington, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was focused on defending Israel from an enemy.

Was it Syrian President Bashar Assad? Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei? Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan? No, no and no.

The answer is Emanuel Weiser.

Who is Weiser, you might ask? He is a religious-Zionist Tel Aviv lawyer who has twice run unsuccessfully for a slot on the Likud’s Knesset list. The scion of a Belgian Betar commander, he heads an organization that represents the ideas of the Likud’s ideological father Ze’ev Jabotinsky.

Weiser is running for the chairmanship of the Likud’s internal court, a post the importance of which cannot be underestimated, especially in Netanyahu’s eyes.

Normally, the court makes decisions about procedural and technical matters and helps ensure that the Likud is being run properly, according to its bylaws.

That is what has happened when the court has been run by a retired judge.

Netanyahu fears that if the court is run by a right-wing political activist like Weiser, hawks on the Likud central committee could take him to court whenever he takes actions that violates the committee’s decisions, such as the decision opposing a Palestinian state or a potential decision to reject the merger with Yisrael Beytenu that he covets.

The worst-case scenario for Netanyahu is that the central committee could take action to initiate a leadership race in which he could be overthrown. If he had his man at the helm of the court, those moves could be stopped.

Netanyahu thought he had the right man for the job: A retired judge with a Likud background named Nissim Yeshaya. But then Yeshaya got in trouble for saying that “some women enjoy rape,” and then another judge said no new candidates for chairman of the court could join the race – which could mean an easy victory for Weiser.

“I don’t intend to use the court to persuade people to accept my views,” Weiser said when informed of Netanyahu’s concern. “I just want to help the Likud, which is in a bad state. The court doesn’t normally deal with ideological disputes. But if he is afraid of running the party according to its constitution, then yes, he has what to worry about if I win.”

Hundreds of Likud activists gathered at the Gallery Palace Hall on the Tel Aviv-Holon border Tuesday night to accuse Netanyahu of doing just that: Bypassing the Likud’s rules for his own political gain. They expressed frustration with Netanyahu for delaying for more than a year the internal party elections and a Likud convention that would follow up on the last one, in which he was booed.

A compromise was reached by the Likud’s election committee Wednesday between Netanyahu’s associates and political rivals, to hold the elections on the last day the Tel Aviv District Court ruled was permitted – June 30 – but to hold no convention and no speeches.

A central Likud figure involved in the compromise said he was shocked at how deeply involved Netanyahu was in even the most technical decisions.

He said he told Netanyahu he should not care about such things and should concentrate on running the country.

The figure said Netanyahu also kept on changing his mind. But he had his mind made up that he had to fight to prevent himself from losing control over his own party.

Likud officials loyal to Netanyahu said the fact that he cared so much about the internal dealings inside the Likud was proof that he is serious about moving forward the diplomatic process with the Palestinians.

Netanyahu’s intentions on that front were questioned twice this past week: Wednesday, when he had to take back a joint press release with Polish leaders that was mangled by junior staff members; and Saturday, when Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon of the Likud’s unsurprising and inconsequential views about the government not really seeking a peace deal were magnified by the media.

The prime minister also proved his sincerity about the diplomatic process when he intervened to make sure no Likud ministers attended Tuesday’s festive launching of the pro-settlements Land of Israel caucus in the Knesset.

With no Likud ministers, the press focused on the presence of Yesh Atid MK Dov Lipman, who is also in the caucus for two states for two peoples. MKs privately mocked him afterward but they also called him a political genius, noting that like Lipman, most Israelis want to make peace while keeping all the land.

The fights inside Netanyahu’s coalition this week between advocates and opponents of concessions to the Palestinians deepened divides enhanced in previous weeks on socioeconomic issues and matters of religion and state. Forthcoming budget battles and the return of the haredi draft issue will only intensify the rifts in the coalition.

Netanyahu could take solace in the fact that Israel’s political system unintentionally prevents weak governments from falling. The weaker a government is perceived to be, the more the parties have an interest in keeping it together to prevent elections from being declared. Ironically, it is well-liked governments in which coalition parties could be strengthened by returning to the voters that are truly in danger of falling.

But that is only true to a certain point. Recent history has proven that if a prime minister is seen as too weak, politicians increasingly disrespect him, and eventually the political vultures come out to prey on him.

That is another reason why the Likud’s internal elections are so important. If the younger generation of politicians takes over the party’s institutions, they could pass up their elders when the race to succeed Netanyahu eventually takes place.

So the Likud’s internal issues may not be as exciting as the riots in Turkey and Syria or the election in Iran. But their significance should not be underestimated.

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