Politics: Who will lead the fight on the Right?

As settlement construction is put on hold, more and more leaders on the Right are fuming. But so far nobody has stepped up to do something about it.

Yaalon bibi 248.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Yaalon bibi 248.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The political battle to prevent the August 2005 disengagement from the Gaza Strip had almost everything needed to succeed. It had the open backing of 13 of the Likud's 40 MKs and the tacit support of another dozen, a ready infrastructure of thousands of protesters ready to demonstrate even on short notice, and nearly limitless funding from abroad. All that was missing was a leader. The only minister among the 13 MKs who became known as the Likud rebels was Uzi Landau, who was just a minister-without-portfolio, and lacked the necessary charisma to lead the effort. The charismatic leader the MKs were hoping would direct the struggle against the withdrawal was the finance minister at the time, Binyamin Netanyahu. But he voted in favor of the withdrawal, due to a deal negotiated by then-absorption minister Tzipi Livni that conditioned his support on the withdrawal taking place in monitored stages. Netanyahu only ended up quitting the cabinet just ahead of the withdrawal when all possible political approaches to preventing it had been exhausted. Fast forward more than four years later. Netanyahu is prime minister in a government that has not approved any new tenders to build in Judea and Samaria. The de facto freeze on new construction in the settlements has not been brought to a cabinet vote. Later this month, US President Barack Obama will reportedly be announcing a framework for advancing the Middle East diplomatic process. As part of the process, Netanyahu has reportedly agreed to maintain the current settlement freeze to a certain extent in return for gestures from the Palestinians and the Arab world. Meanwhile, more and more of Netanyahu's ministers have come out against freezing settlement construction. First in a tour of unauthorized West Bank outposts that angered Netanyahu by four ministers: Vice Premier Moshe Ya'alon, Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs Minister Yuli Edelstein, Interior Minister Eli Yishai and Science and Technology Minister Daniel Herschkowitz. Then this week came calls against a freeze from three Likud ministers known as relative moderates: Vice Premier Silvan Shalom, Environment Minister Gilad Erdan and Minister-without-Portfolio Yossi Peled. Next Wednesday, a rally will be held at the Likud's Tel Aviv headquarters in support of construction in Judea and Samaria, at which at least four Likud ministers are expected to speak. A much larger event was set this week for October 7, during Hol Hamoed Succot, in Samaria. But who will be the featured speaker at these events? Who will give the keynote address and rally the crowd? Or more specifically, who will lead the efforts against Obama's and Netanyahu's diplomatic process and officially take the mantle of the leader of the Right? The organizers of the events don't know yet. WHILE NETANYAHU has made an effort since taking office to represent the Israeli consensus in his dealings with the US, solidifying his position in the center of the political map, and Obama's administration has put on pressure from the Left (usurping the role of Labor or Kadima), the Right has no consensus leader. The head of the only right-wing party not in the coalition, National Union chairman Ya'acov Katz, is an elderly settler activist with delusions of becoming prime minister, and is certainly not taken seriously by mainstream Israelis. Israel Beiteinu head Avigdor Lieberman, whose 15 seats prove that he has become more mainstream, is expected to be indicted in a matter of months and meanwhile is visiting Africa while staying out of the settlement issue. The head of the most right-wing party in the coalition, Habayit Hayehudi's Herschkowitz, hardly has the power to lead any kind of right-wing effort as the leader of a party with three seats, whose number two is constantly conspiring against him. Yishai is busy battling off his predecessor as Shas chairman, Aryeh Deri. A source close to Netanyahu said he expected his main opposition to any diplomatic steps to come from inside the Likud. Minister-without-Portfolio Bennie Begin has told Likud MKs on the Right that he did not return to politics to lead any kind of rebellion. Younger Likud MKs like Tzipi Hotovely, Yariv Levin and Danny Danon, who was named the MK most loyal to the Right's agenda in a comprehensive study by the Matot Arim organization last month, don't have any delusions of grandeur. They pointed to one MK capable of leading a struggle against a settlement freeze and removing outposts, two steps that he received flack for publicly speaking out against: Ya'alon, a former chief of General Staff with proven leadership abilities. "There is no absolute leader yet on the Right," said Danon. "That slot is still open. But out of the possible candidates, only Ya'alon has real potential." When a video was leaked of Ya'alon speaking at an event of the Likud's Rightist Manhigut Yehudit (Jewish Leadership) forum, it was speculated that he was reaching out to the powerful lobby inside Likud in hopes of eventually taking over the party. But Ya'alon said afterward that he meets with all kinds of groups in and out of Likud, and delivers more or less the same speech, based on his book, The Long Short Road, and that he does not even think about his long-term political future. When he is asked about leading the Right, he says that he entered politics to have influence from inside the top decision-making forums. Sometimes his views are adopted in the prestigious, six-member inner cabinet, and sometimes they are not. And what would happen if the government goes in a direction that he believes would gravely harm the country's long-term security? He says he believes there will not end up being a reason for the Right to rebel. But he also repeats that he entered politics because he wanted to have influence. And that hint gives MKs on the Right hope that he will eventually be their man.