Likud Chairman Binyamin Netanyahu's motives in pushing for early leadership primaries in his party are clear.
Over the past 10 months, in the aftermath of last summer's war, the Likud under his leadership had staged an incredible comeback, polling as high as three times its current 12 Knesset seats, leaving Ehud Olmert's Kadima and Amir Peretz's Labor far behind. But now there's another potential prime minister in the arena, and Labor under the leadership of its old-new chairman Ehud Barak is swiftly closing the gap in the polls. What's even worse is that Barak, as Olmert's coalition partner, could well hold the key to the timing of the next elections and his people are already talking of holding them in March 2008. Netanyahu needs to get the Likud on a campaign footing.
But first of all, before he faces off against Barak, he has to get the minor detail of the primaries out of the way - and, especially, find a way of taking the Silvan Shalom thorn out of his side.
Shalom was a close political ally of former prime minister Ariel Sharon, backing him in the crucial vote not to bring forward the Likud primaries two years ago. But when Sharon split the Likud and founded Kadima, Shalom stayed put. Netanyahu's supporters have accused Shalom of being Kadima's double-agent but the real explanation for him not joining the exodus from the Likud was his plan to take over the party after Netanyahu's presumed inevitable downfall following the last elections. But Netanyahu, despite the Likud's worst ever showing, has proved remarkably resilient, and the fact that many are now seeing him as the prime minister-in-waiting is a constant source of frustration for Shalom. Ever since the elections debacle, therefore, Shalom has been calling for primaries so the party can choose a new leader.
Netanyahu decided that now was the best moment to give Shalom what he wants, beat him handily in snap primaries and then hopefully have at least six months to prepare for the general election showdown with Barak.
It was a sound strategy but Netanyahu, as so often in the past, was so eager to finally get Shalom out his way that he went into overkill. By imposing an early primaries date on his opponent, he provided Shalom with the perfect excuse to refuse the challenge and pull out of the race. He might have been anxious to get the Likud leadership battle over with and take the fight to Labor as soon as possible but it would have made much more sense to be flexible with Shalom; Netanyahu, after all, was almost certain to win the primaries anyway, even if they were to have taken place two months later. After beating Shalom in a fair fight, he would at least have bought himself a few months' of quiet from his internal rival.
Now, by contrast, he faces continued suffering from Shalom's constant criticism, further heightened by this latest episode. And, worse, the virtually uncontested primaries pose a significant image problem for Netanyahu.
Barring surprises, the only other contender will be Moshe Feiglin, head of the ultra right-wing Jewish Leadership faction within the Likud. Feiglin has been trying for a decade to nudge the party rightwards, but despite running and fielding candidates in every party race, he has yet to place a member of his group in the Knesset and has always come last in the leadership primaries. But this time, though he will certainly lose again, being the alternative candidate to Netanyahu will guarantee him an inordinate amount of media attention.
Since many Likud members will stay home rather than take part in what will be seen as a rubber-stamp vote, Feiglin will be able to mobilize his motivated supporters, ensuring that he at least gets a good showing, with double digits. This in turn will see the Likud portrayed as a party with a significant right-wing element, at the precise moment when Netanyahu is trying to woo the centrist voters who would be crucial for a general elections victory.
All of a sudden, Netanyahu needs Shalom. At least a bitter and acrimonious contest with him could have seen the Likud positioned as a healthy, dynamic political organism, and kept Feiglin out of the limelight.
This is turning out to be a bad week for Netanyahu for another reason too. The news that Arkadi Gaydamak is about to register his new party, Social Justice, and launch it with a large supporters' rally can't have done much for his mood.
If he does ultimately run in the next elections, Gaydamak will be aiming exactly for the voters that Netanyahu sees as his natural constituency - the Russian immigrants, the traditionally religious and low-income earners, the collection of communities that was called "the coalition of the disenfranchised" in Netanyahu's 1996 elections victory. Whether the capricious oligarch stays the course, retaining the popularity that polls ascribe to him, remains to be seen. But one thing is already clear: While, only a couple of months ago, Netanyahu's return to the Prime Minister's Office seemed almost inevitable, now it turns out he will still have a veritable obstacle course to run.