Politics: Facing the enemy within

The leaders of Likud, Labor and Kadima outmaneuvered their political opponents solidifying their hold on power.

party leaders netanyahu livni yacimovich 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
party leaders netanyahu livni yacimovich 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
The heads of Israel’s three largest parties – in terms of membership – devoted their attention over the past 10 days to fighting against implacable enemies from Tunisia, Morocco and Iran.
Reading that sentence you would think that the Arab Spring had already reached Israel and that Islamist regimes had united against the Jewish State.
Luckily, the foes faced by the leaders of Likud, Labor and Kadima are all enemies from within, each within their own party.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu stunned his Likud rival, Tunisian-born Silvan Shalom, by advancing their party’s leadership primary by 15 months.
Opposition leader Tzipi Livni resisted a challenge by her competition in Kadima, Iranian native Shaul Mofaz, who was trying to use the initiation of the Likud’s primary to pressure Livni to advance the leadership race in Kadima.
And Labor leader Shelly Yacimovich found out the hard way that the primary she won in September hadn’t really ended in the eyes of her sparring partner in her party, Amir Peretz, who was born in Morocco.
What do all these internal battles have in common aside from the adversaries sharing origins in Muslim countries? In all three, the incumbent leader used clever political strategy to preempt and minimize his or her enemy’s ability to attack, and in each case the reigning party chief emerged victorious and solidified his or her grip on power – at least for now.
Netanyahu already began planning his effort to advance the Likud primary at the beginning of 2010 when he changed the party constitution to delay a vote for a new Likud central committee. The Likud hasn’t elected a new central committee in 10 years, so the vote set for January 31 was expected to garner a relatively large turnout among the party’s 100,000 members who are eligible to vote.
The leadership race was supposed to be held in spring 2013, within six months before the next general election that is set for October 22 of that year. Netanyahu’s advancing the race and combining it with the January 31 vote for the central committee not only caught Shalom off guard and apparently guaranteed that he would not run, it also ensured a large turnout for the vote that could give him a victory margin reminiscent of what Hosni Mubarak and Bashar Assad once enjoyed in Egypt and Syria.
Netanyahu’s only challenger is expected to be far-Right party activist Moshe Feiglin, who is running against him for the fourth time. Feiglin’s support has gradually grown from three percent in the 2002 race to 13% in 2005 and 23.4% in 2007. A large turnout could return Feiglin to proportion and enable Netanyahu to downplay Feiglin’s foothold in the Likud.
Netanyahu told the Likud faction that holding the race next month would enable him to focus on security, diplomatic and socioeconomic challenges.
Left unsaid were unpopular political steps that he would have an easier time getting away with immediately after the Likud members gave him another vote of confidence.
That’s why hawkish Likud MK Tzipi Hotovely made a point of asking Netanyahu at Monday’s Likud faction meeting about two steps the prime minister is said to be considering: Dismantling outposts and asking a Likud convention to allow him to reserve slots for candidates of his choosing on the Likud’s next list.
Netanyahu could use such powers to make a deal with MKs who would defect from Kadima or possibly Israel Beiteinu in the event party head Avigdor Lieberman gets indicted. But speculation has centered on Netanyahu wanting to find a political home for his commander in the elite General Staff Reconnaissance Unit, Defense Minister Ehud Barak.
The prime minister’s response to Hotovely was purposely ambiguous.
“I pledge that I never promised a reserved slot for Barak and I was never asked to,” he said.
Netanyahu noticeably spoke in the past tense, leaving the future wide open. But Hotovely and her associates believe that thanks to the statement she garnered from Netanyahu in the closed-door meeting, which she immediately leaked to the press, the prime minister will have a tougher time making such a move.
Hotovely may have even given Netanyahu an excuse to do to Barak what he did to former pensioners affairs minister Rafi Eitan. In return for Eitan’s help in preventing Livni from forming a government following former prime minister Ehud Olmert’s resignation, Netanyahu promised Eitan that he could keep his ministry in the new government. When Netanyahu broke his promise he forced Eitan to return to retirement, which isn’t such a bad fate for millionaires like Eitan and Barak.
It was not coincidental that Netanyahu’s call for primaries in Likud came less than a week after Livni pulled a political maneuver in her Kadima faction to delay discussion of an early leadership race until at least May.
Netanyahu’s associates said he was highlighting the contrast between his bold move to advance his primary and Livni’s attempt to postpone hers at all costs.
Luckily for Livni, she was in Washington at the Saban Forum when Netanyahu made his announcement. Without Livni, Kadima’s faction didn’t meet this week and her conveniently long flight back to Israel helped her avoid having to comment on Netanyahu’s move.
She bought even more time by insisting on “consulting” with the 27 other Kadima MKs one by one. By the time she responds and announces that Kadima won’t advance its primary, her declaration will have fallen from page one news to a brief buried deep inside the newspapers.
Through her clever political maneuvering, Livni avoided pressure from Mofaz to initiate a leadership primary before, during and after Labor’s race, and now she has done the same thing with the Likud. But Livni cannot avoid the race forever and unlike Netanyahu, who lacked real competition, and unlike Yacimovich, whose primary is over, Livni’s political future is by no means guaranteed.
Then again, is Yacimovich’s race really over? When Peretz got on stage at the November 30 Labor Party convention in Tel Aviv and started delivering a fiery speech, it looked like the race was back on.
But Yacimovich wisely kept her cool. She sat stoically onstage a few meters from Peretz as he spoke, and she did not react to Peretz’s speech when she addressed the crowd afterwards or in radio interviews the following day. By turning the other cheek, Yacimovich made Peretz look bad and strengthened her hold over the party.
Political battles in Israel are still a lot less exciting right now than in most countries in the region.
But for 10 days, Israelis got their own chance to watch their leaders take steps to hang onto power.
The Arab Spring it wasn’t.
But when it comes to Israeli politics, this winter has started out pretty cool.