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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Remarkably little has changed in the 10 days since Binyamin Netanyahu won the Likud leadership primary: Before the primary, Likud's senior leadership was too busy with internal infighting to wage an election campaign, and after the primary that is still the case.
This is partly the fault of Likud ministers such as Silvan Shalom, Limor Livnat and Dan Naveh, who are fighting Netanyahu's plan to withdraw the party from the government. Incredibly, these ministers appear to feel that clinging to their posts for another few weeks is more important than waging an effective campaign against Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's Kadima Party - something it is difficult to do as a junior partner in Sharon's government. If further proof were needed of Shalom's unfitness to lead any party, his inability to grasp this basic fact of political life certainly provides it.
Nevertheless, the primary blame rests with Netanyahu himself - because instead of launching a campaign against Sharon, he has declared all-out war on Moshe Feiglin.
The anti-Feiglin campaign not only undermines party unity; it also undercuts one of Likud's strongest selling points: its repeated claim that, in contrast to Sharon's dictatorial style, Likud respects democratic norms. Netanyahu's treatment of Feiglin has thus far come straight out of Sharon's playbook: If you do not like the outcome of a vote, change the rules. Fearful that Feiglin, who took third place in the leadership race with 12 percent of the vote, would give Likud an extremist image, Netanyahu decided to amend the party's bylaws to keep Feiglin off Likud's Knesset list.
Feiglin's views are unarguably far to the right not only of most Israelis, but of most Likud members. Nevertheless, there is a perfectly adequate democratic response to this problem: Netanyahu could simply point out that Feiglin represents a mere 5% of Likud members (since turnout in the primary was about 45%), whereas Likud policy, as is proper in a democratic organization, will be made by the party's elected leader in accordance with the views of the 95% majority. Indeed, that would be a far more effective response, since it reduces Likud's "extremist" wing to its true proportions. Netanyahu's response, in contrast, lends credence to the charge that Likud is extremist by implying that the Feiglin camp is so large and powerful that only extraordinary measures, such as changing the rules, can stop it.
Moreover, while the proposed rule change - which would bar anyone convicted of a crime and sentenced to three months or more in jail from being a Likud MK - is unexceptionable in itself, by making it clear that the change is aimed primarily at Feiglin, and only secondarily at genuine criminals, Netanyahu has not only missed a golden opportunity to portray Likud as serious about fighting corruption; he has also cynically exploited a gross miscarriage of justice.
FEIGLIN UNDENIABLY broke laws during the civil disobedience campaign he waged to protest the Oslo Accords (which mainly involved blocking roads); that is the nature of civil disobedience. As such, he could legitimately have been charged with various misdemeanors, from demonstrating without a permit to disturbing the peace.
But there was never any justification for convicting him on the serious charge of sedition, whose dictionary definition is "incitement to rebellion against a government"; civil disobedience bears scant resemblance to armed rebellion. Even the courts appear to have dimly understood this, since despite the gravity of the charge, Feiglin received only a sixmonth jail sentence. But since a key element of democracy is the right to protest without facing trumped-up sedition charges, Netanyahu's exploitation of this unwarranted conviction to keep Feiglin off the Likud slate is inappropriate for someone who claims to champion democratic values.
Another serious problem with the anti-Feiglin campaign is that Netanyahu appears to be cowering before Kadima - which hardly improves his public image. After all, most of the charges of "extremism" hurled at Likud over Feiglin have come from Kadima members, who have a vested interest in portraying Likud as extremist. By frantically trying to purge anything Kadima slaps with this label, Netanyahu is effectively conceding Kadima's authority to decide what constitutes extremism.
This is particularly irresponsible because Kadima views many key Likud positions as extremist - for instance, its opposition to unilateral withdrawals. Thus to woo voters, Netanyahu must prove that his commitment to these principles outweighs his fear of being labeled an "extremist" by Kadima. Granted, unilateral withdrawal is more important than Feiglin. Nevertheless, if a few cries of "extremist" over Feiglin were sufficient to make Netanyahu jettison Likud's vaunted commitment to democratic principles, what will happen when a reelected Sharon announces the next unilateral withdrawal and launches a full-blown campaign to paint his opponents as extremists, as he did with the disengagement?
But the worst thing about Netanyahu's war on Feiglin is that it distracts attention from the truly important war - the one against Sharon. Feiglin is a triviality: His support level, as demonstrated in the Likud primary, would not even suffice to win him a single Knesset seat; thus however extreme his views, he is powerless to wreak harm. Sharon, in contrast, seems likely to be Israel's next prime minister. And in that position, he will have the power to do enormous harm, both to Israel's security and to its democratic norms.
Likud's one and only task over the next three months thus to try to regain as many votes as possible from - preferably, enough to keep Sharon from being prime ister; if not, at least enough to make Likud a viable opposi tion. However, this cannot be done by attacking Feiglin; can only be done by a clear and consistent campaign explain why Sharon is dangerous. Netanyahu should fore stop wasting his - and our - time on trivialities and down to work.