Benyamin Netanyahu is sitting pretty with Israeli voters. Recent polls make him a sure bet to repeat as prime minister.
Not so simple is his standing within his own party. While his leadership is likely to be secure, there are enough signs of right-wing opposition to provide some worry. They also provide analysts with evidence that Bibi may be right of center, but not an extremist.
That label falls to others within Likud.
Moshe Feiglin is nemesis #1, nipping at Bibi''s heels for more than 10 years. Feiglin is religious, and would emphasize the Jewish nature of Israel within and beyond its present borders by offering Palestinians financial incentives to emigrate. However, he has opposed programs of religious coercion. He would loosen requirements about kashrut, and facilitate civil marriage.
Parsing Feiglin''s numerous ideas from his frequent, articulate, creative and idiosyncratic expressions is not worth the effort, given his minority position within Likud. He is a significant, but not more than an ideological troublemaker. Americans might compare his status to that of Ron Paul within the Republican Party. Feiglin has shown that he can win about a quarter of the vote in Likud primaries. He is enough of a threat to encourage Netanyahu to employ arcane party rules to keep him off the list of Knesset candidates and from other accomplishments.
Netanyahu''s problems within Likud go beyond Feiglin. Sunday evening the prime minister convened a meeting of the Likud Central Committee, an often unruly assembly of some 3,500 members, in order to endorse his position as party chairman. Bibi wanted an open vote by raised hands, which would allow him to declare an endorsement by acclimation. Alas, there were opponents, shouiting loud enough to be heard above the din and with signs already prepared and waved in front of the TV cameras insisting on a secret ballot. The commotion caused Netanyahu to postpone a decision.
Netanyahu wanted an endorsement as "temporary" party leader that would hold until after the election, when there would be another internal election to select a "permanent" party leader. After the election, the post would be largely symbolic. Now, four months before the voting on September 4, it has the capacity to provide the leader with an opportunity to influence the crucial selection and ranking of party candidates on the list that will go before the voters. In Israel''s system of proportional representation, members of a party''s list enter the Knesset in the order of their placement, depending on the proportion of the vote received by their party.
Of special sensitivity here is Netanyahu''s affinity for Defense Minister Ehud Barak, nominally a member of the Indepedence Party, but not assured of entering the Knesset on the list of that new and small break off from the Labor Party. Netanyahu''s opponents in Likud, including some in the center of the party''s spectrum, do not want Netanyahu to give a reserved place, high on the list, to someone who has not worked within the party organization, going to weddings, bar mitzvah''s, circumcisions, and funerals, shaking hands, slapping backs, and promoting the party to potential voters.
Journalists report that opposition to Netanyahu at the Central Committee was heavily religious. This suggests that it reflects a substantial input of settlers or their supporters, similar to the population that provides the base of support for Moshe Feiglin.
Netanyahu is usually an articulate speaker, able to play the right chords in order to excite his audience. Sunday evening was not his best. Perhaps he was distracted by the opposition. He thanked the people of Israel for their show of support during Memorial Week for his late father, and went on to praise himself for leading the country to three years of economic progress with lower rates of unemployment than Western Europe or the United States. He also emphasized the greater sense of security felt by Israelis, due to the low incidence of Palestinian terror.
Here he showed himself to be detached. The day''s news, peaking in the prime time shows which had just presented their headlines prior to the onset of his speech, highlighted citizens'' expressions of insecurity. The reason was several recent killings, seemingly by young Jews fired up by another Friday evening of drinking and carousing.
By the next day, the prime minister had been put back on message. He opened a government meeting sounding more like a typical Israeli troubled by crime, and promised to increase the personnel on police patrols..
(Lest my overseas Zionist readers worry about their virtual country, police issued an official report showing that violent crime is actually decreasing.)
This Sunday was not the first time that Netanyahu has felt the hot breath of the right. Arguably it was his party colleagues and other Knesset Members of the right who brought about the end of his first term as prime minister in 1999. His offenses at the time were agreeing to American proposals at the Wye River conference to move the Oslo Accords further along by granting concessions to Palestinian in Hebron, and shaking the hand of Yassir Arafat.
The failure of one effort to slip through a resolution firming up his power in the Likud Central Committee, and a weaker than usual speech does not foretell the end of Netanyahu''s career. Right wingers in his party can snip and remind hm of their potential, but they have no better candidate to get at least part of what they want.
On the other hand, many of his opponents are intense religious nationalists, whose faith does not contain concepts of compromise, concession, or down to earth reality. Bibi needn''t worry now about surrendering the keys to the Prime Minister''s Office, but he doesn''t have anything like the tenure of a professor or government bureaucrat. The right wing of Likud and its friends in other parties will not go away, and may decide once again--as they did in 1999--that they would rather be right than be in power.