Politics: Navigating Likud

Netanyahu succeeded in demoting Feiglin Thursday night, but was it worth it?

likud logo 88 (photo credit: )
likud logo 88
(photo credit: )
Upon becoming prime minister in 1992, Yitzhak Rabin decided to put an end to infighting in his Labor Party and sparring over portfolios between his camp and that of his rival, Shimon Peres. In a celebrated speech to the hostile central committee that became part of the country's lore, Rabin declared: "I will navigate." That speech helped solidify his rule over the party and silence internal opposition. Likud chairman Binyamin Netanyahu delivered a similar message on Thursday night in an interview with The Jerusalem Post. In words directed at Likud Knesset candidate Moshe Feiglin and his loyalists, as well as at the general public, Netanyahu said that, as prime minister, he would determine how the country would be run, and that he expected discipline from his faction. "I am the Likud's leader, and the MKs understand that I set the policies," Netanyahu said. "All of the MKs, except for maybe one, will follow my commitment to achieving peace and security with reciprocity. I will pursue this from a large Likud in a wide national-unity government, which is important for the challenges that lie ahead, that require the most experienced leadership which I intend to provide." He said that the media's focus on Feiglin's placement on the list was "ballyhooed," and that what really mattered was that the Likud selected a list of proven leaders in security, economics, law, medicine and politics with varied backgrounds, and nine young people under the age of 40. But Netanyahu's critics charged that, rather than acting to unify his party - as Rabin did when he became prime minister - by targeting Feiglin and actively working to keep him off the party's list, Netanyahu was behaving the way new prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu did in 1996. When he built his cabinet then, Netanyahu insisted on leaving out the Likud's top hawk at the time, Ariel Sharon, whose views were demonized. Netanyahu eventually caved in and created a ministry for Sharon, but it ended up being just the first of many internal fights in his party and political camp that led to his downfall. Thursday night's decision by the Likud's elections committee to demote Feiglin from the guaranteed 20th slot on the list to the borderline 36th was clearly a victory for Netanyahu. But Likud leaders, and even his own advisers, are divided on whether it was smart politically to waste his energy over the past week battling Feiglin and other internal rivals, rather than focusing his attention on Kadima Leader Tzipi Livni. NETANYAHU'S POLITICAL week began when he released a list of his endorsements in Monday's primary, alienating many of his supporters who were not on it. He endorsed 10 people in a race with 144 candidates, virtually guaranteeing 134 enemies. One of his endorsements was embattled former Sderot mayor Eli Moyal, who is facing a criminal investigation and who had no chance of winning a slot reserved for a candidate from the South. He got only 600 votes, just enough to block Silvan Shalom's cousin, former Beersheba deputy mayor Andre Uzan, from winning the slot. Netanyahu's critics in Likud said he had nothing to gain from picking a fight with Shalom, who was surprised to see headlines Sunday about the Likud leader's allies falsely accusing him of trying to win enough seats for his loyalists to build his own mini-faction within the party. Then Netanyahu did not take the steps necessary to ensure that there would be enough polling stations and computers available for the voting, which resulted in many voters going home, rather than waiting on long lines to vote. Likud had polling stations in half as many municipalities as Labor, despite having twice as many members. The most acute shortages were in Feiglin's strongholds of Judea, Samaria and Jerusalem. Due to the long lines, Netanyahu extended the vote from 11 p.m. to 1 a.m., and sent late-night voice-mail messages to his supporters urging them to vote. But it was mostly hard-core Feiglin supporters who waited at polling stations past midnight. Then Netanyahu continued his battle against Feiglin by sending his former aide, Ophir Akunis, to appeal the results and get Feiglin demoted. The appeal succeeded, but it could still be challenged by Feiglin. IN CLOSED conversations, Likud MKs attacked Netanyahu for "inflating Feiglin" with his attacks on him both before and after the election. They said that if Netanyahu had not put Feiglin in the spotlight, he would not have won a realistic slot in the first place. Netanyahu's advisers said it was important for him to do everything possible to deter Feiglin and distance himself from his extremist views, so no one could attribute them to him. But they denied that he initiated the lawsuit, and claimed that it was not specifically aimed at demoting Feiglin. "It looks like [Netanyahu was targeting Feiglin], but it's not the case," a source close to Netanyahu said. "Bibi obviously has an interest in pushing back Feiglin, but he's not doing tricks here." It was Shalom who alerted Netanyahu to what Likud sources call "a legal mishap" that led to Feiglin's mistakenly being placed higher on the list than he had earned. One close Netanyahu adviser said he learned of the lawsuit from the media, and that he was angry that the appeal was filed, because he thought it would damage the Likud leader. Responding to criticism about the other controversial decisions Netanyahu made, his associates said that, as the head of the party, he wanted to get the best list he could. They said Netanyahu had an obligation to help out party activists running for the Knesset who had been loyal to him for years and had no reason to aid Shalom's cousin. "[Netanyahu] is not paranoid," a source close to the Likud leader said. "He thinks a leader has to do things he believes in, even if they are not popular, and even if he is criticized." Regarding the problem with the computers, they said that Netanyahu had asked the officials in charge of them many times about whether the party was ready logistically for the primary. They blamed the decision not to have more polling stations on Likud activists who had nothing to do with the dispute between Netanyahu and Feiglin. Netanyahu's associates said that Feiglin would soon be forgotten. They said the Likud has been at the top of the polls for two years, and they did not expect its Knesset slate to have any long-term impact ahead of the February 10 general election. "The headlines about who our candidates are will only last for a few days, and then people will go back to talking about who can make the country safer, run it better and properly handle the economy," a Netanyahu associate said. "That's what will propel us to victory."