Netanyahu and Shalom 248.88.
(photo credit: )
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu on Sunday faced the harshest criticism he has received from within the Likud since his return to the Prime Minister's Office on March 31, when his rival, Vice Premier Silvan Shalom, accused him of abandoning the party's ideology for a meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
Shalom hosted 10 Likud ministers and MKs and hundreds of party activists in a show of force at a Tel Aviv wedding hall. Top settler leaders also attended the event as part of a lobbying effort inside the Likud that they hope could prevent Netanyahu from implementing a settlement freeze.
"We are here to save the path of the Likud," Shalom said. "I think paying the price of freezing settlements to get a meeting with Abu Mazen is not the right thing to do right now. Were we in the Likud elected to implement the policies of others? If we agree before negotiations to recognize a Palestinian state and freeze settlements, on what will we negotiate?"
Shalom said that the fate of the settlements should be left for final-status negotiations and warned that agreeing to a freeze now would lead to an inevitable conflict once Israel decided to build again in the West Bank. He said Netanyahu should have insisted on this in his talks with Obama's administration.
"People say if we say no to the US, it would cause a conflict with America," Shalom said. "But America asked the Saudis for concessions to Israel and the Saudis said no. Did it cause a fight between the US and Saudi Arabia?"
Shalom said he would back an effort initiated by Likud MK Danny Danon to obtain the signatures necessary to force the prime minister to convene the Likud central committee for a vote on freezing settlement construction.
Sources close to Netanyahu responded that following a weekend of intense lobbying of Likud ministers, he had nearly wall-to-wall support and they were not concerned if Shalom would be the exception to that rule.
The settler leaders have countered Netanyahu's lobbying with some political pressure of their own. They said they would focus on trying to persuade Likud ministers, MKs and activists to take their side in their battle against Netanyahu. They even suggested that the Likud could remain in power under a leader more to their liking, such as Vice Premier Moshe Ya'alon, or even the formerly dovish Shalom.
"We don't have the influence a prime minister has, especially over ministers," Council of Jewish Communities in Judea and Samaria director-general Pinhas Wallerstein said at the event. "But we are talking to the Likud's ministers every hour of every day."
Wallerstein, who is not a member of the Likud, told the crowd it was the first time he had addressed a rally of any party. Ariel Mayor Ron Nachman, a former Likud MK, read aloud from one of Netanyahu's books warning that a settlement freeze would kill communities in Judea and Samaria.
Netanyahu's aides reportedly pressured ministers and MKs not to attend a pro-settler rally at the Likud Party's headquarters in Tel Aviv on Wednesday.
But Diaspora Affairs and Public Diplomacy Minister Yuli Edelstein, who intends to attend the event, said Netanyahu did not ask him not to come.
In an effort to reach out to Edelstein, who is the only Likud minister who lives in the West Bank, Netanyahu met with him on Thursday and Sunday and had a long phone conversation with him on Friday. He also met on Friday with Ya'alon and spoke on the phone with Minister-without-Portfolio Bennie Begin, who is in Canada.
"There is no reason for a rebellion in the Likud," Edelstein said following his conversations with the prime minister. "I am sure there are no signs of a split in the Likud. Netanyahu has not caved in to the US. What he has done is not what I would do, but the outcome of his talks with the US is very different from the initial American demands, so he has come a long way."
Netanyahu's associates expressed confidence that they had quelled any possible rebellion in the party by neutralizing Ya'alon, Begin and any serious potential leader of a struggle against the prime minister.
They said he would increase his political activity over the next few months to reach out to Likud activists and explain his diplomatic moves.
Shas chairman Eli Yishai and ministers from Israel Beiteinu also expressed support for Netanyahu on Sunday.
"Netanyahu's decision on a strategic delay in building [in the settlements] is reasonable," Yishai said.