Politics: Unlucky number seven

Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu's minimalist efforts to diffuse the internal Likud rebellion indicate that perhaps the 'search for an alternate leader' has become the status quo.

netanyahu knesset 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
netanyahu knesset 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
Last Friday, it seemed as if counting seven in the Likud was easier than ever before. Counting seven MKs and ministers who were unhappy enough with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's planned settlement freeze to RSVP to an anti-moratorium rally at party headquarters, that is. Seven is the magic number for party splits set during the last Knesset session with the ratification of the so-called Mofaz Law - the law pushed through by Netanyahu with steely insistence, throwing around coalition weight to make sure that it made it. Counting seven supporters for a pro-Shaul Mofaz faction in Kadima has been difficult, but counting seven - or even eight or nine - Likud dissenters seemed promising. Communications Minister Moshe Kahlon, Diaspora Affairs Minister Yuli Edelstein, Environmental Protection Minister Gilad Erdan, Government Services Minister Michael Eitan, Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Ya'alon and coalition chairman Ze'ev Elkin all were rumored to have considered attending the rally. Earlier this week even relative Likud dove Vice Premier Silvan Shalom seemed to be on the brink of coming aboard, while Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin pummeled Netanyahu on his moratorium policy during an impassioned speech in Hebron. Even without Science Minister Daniel Herschkowitz's advanced degrees in mathematics, any party hack could count eight, and that list didn't even include the rancorous Likud backbenchers - MKs Tzipi Hotovely, Miri Regev, Yariv Levin, Carmel Shama and Danny Danon - who were seemingly guaranteed to attend the rally. With a total of 13 potential rebels, the outlook for Netanyahu seemed bleak. But longtime Likud observers were anything but worried. Advisers and officials conveyed a business-as-usual approach, and as the critical Wednesday meeting drew near, Netanyahu seemed to be busying himself with everything but internal Likud "my right is more right than your right" power struggles. As late as Tuesday night, projected rally headliner Kahlon was still assuring reporters that the meeting was not an attack on Netanyahu but rather a show of support for building in the West Bank and that, as such, ministers faced no conflict of loyalties in attending. Apparently, someone within the prime minister's circle felt otherwise. Netanyahu carried out personal conversations at the last minute with each of the politicians expected to attend the meeting, and convinced them all that it was not in their interest to attend. Ministers later said that he asked them for more "operating space" in his negotiations with the Americans, and one even said that Netanyahu hinted that failure to comply could impact the minister's personal relations with the boss. One by one, the guest list shrank until only Regev, Levin, Hotovely and Danon were left, with Levin and Regev going out of their way while addressing the 250 activists gathered at party headquarters to argue that they supported the prime minister. The difficulty of enlisting the top half of the Likud list to the struggle led by Hotovely and Danon has been an obstacle for the hard-core of the would-be Likud rebels since at least as early as Netanyahu's speech at Bar-Ilan University in June. In advance of that speech, one Likud rebel expressed frustration at the lack of an alternate leader within the party, in much the same way that Netanyahu himself stood as an alternative to prime minister Ariel Sharon during the party chaos surrounding the 2005 disengagement. It increasingly seems as though Netanyahu's main strategy within his party is to make sure that things stay that way. He has done little to enforce discipline on the rowdy back-benchers, beyond an unconsummated threat here and there to remove Knesset duties. However when ministers threaten to serve as a rallying point for the politically inexperienced right-wing bloc, he intervenes directly but late. In the case of Wednesday's rally, Netanyahu's phone calls to his errant ministers were conducted less than five hours before the meeting. Wednesday's intervention was not the first example. Less than a month ago, Netanyahu sprang into action after Ya'alon said that left-wing activists "were a virus" within Israeli society. He met with the chronically outspoken minister immediately after returning from his personal summer vacation. Party right-wing activists argue that the personal conversations are merely the tip of the iceberg. They accuse Netanyahu of meddling behind the scenes from the top down. Party activist Moshe Feiglin still asserts that the chairman did everything legally possible - and beyond - to block him from entering the Knesset in the party's 20th slot. When the elevator at Metzudat Ze'ev broke Wednesday night, making it difficult for activists to even reach the meeting, fingers were immediately pointed toward the prime minister.