By TOVAH LAZAROFF
The fate of nothing less than saving the Likud Party from its extreme-right members – or Middle East peace – appears to hinge on the outcome of a small secret-ballot vote about a long-delayed central committee election.True, there is an Iranian atomic bomb to worry about, to say nothing of an arsenal of missiles across the northern border or heightened diplomatic activity in advance of the much-anticipated launch of proximity talks with the Palestinians.But in the last 24 hours, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has pushed all those weighty matters aside to lobby the 2,500 Likud central committee members to support a change to the party’s constitution that would grant him the ability to delay that election by two years.That one act has turned a technical election whose significance is debatable into a test of strength for the prime minister, who has set what many believe is the impossible goal of garnering the two-thirds majority needed for the change.At issue for Netanyahu is the preservation of his power base within the Likud.He has the party’s support, but his own actions have turned the election into a test of his leadership ability.“Right now, he has control of the party,” explained Avraham Diskin, a political scientist at the Hebrew University.That might not be true with a new central committee, said Diskin. “So he wants to delay that moment as much as possible.”To drum up support, Netanyahu and his supporters have focused on the party’s bogeyman under the bed, hawkish right-wing central committee activist Moshe Feiglin, even though he has a support base in the party of only about 6 percent.A loss here, they argue, could strengthen people like Feiglin who want to take over the party from within.Then there is the whole issue of Middle East diplomacy. Spending too much attention on aninternal party election could rob Netanyahu of energy needed for that process and force him to take more hawkish stands with regard to settlement construction, precisely at a time when he may be engaged in indirect talks with the Palestinians.It’s an argument that Diskin discounts. Netanyahu has made major concessions to the Palestinians, including the 10-month moratorium on new settlement construction, and agreed to a demilitarized Palestinian state.The Palestinians have their own internal reasons for not negotiating with Israel that have little to do with Netanyahu.But political scientist Gideon Rahat said he believed losing on Thursday could hamper Netanyahu’s ability to maneuver and make further concessions to the Palestinians.It’s a viewpoint that party members on the right like Feiglin and MK Danny Danon have exploited. A vote for a Likud election now is a vote against Netanyahu’s policies that have curbed settlement development and and which many believe threaten the future of a united Jerusalem.Arik Ziv, the editor of the “Likudnik” Web site, adds, “It is all a tempest in a teapot.”Then-prime minister Ariel Sharon lost central committee votes, yet still maintained his ability to govern the country, said Ziv.The election has been delayed for eight years because there is never a convenient time to hold it.Any prime minister, at any time, would prefer internal stability over a change in his power base.Indeed, no small number of right-wing party members have supportedNetanyahu in his bid to delay the election, fromMinister-without-Portfolio Bennie Begin to Ma’aleh Adumim Mayor BennyKashriel.There is no connection between the peace process and the election, saidKashriel, a central committee member who is convinced that the currentbody can do as good a job as a new one in preserving right-winginterests in the peace process.Thursday’s vote, he said, is about maintaining the Likud’s strength and unity as the governing party.To that end, people need to stand behind Netanyahu in the vote, Kashriel said.
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