Party Time: Demoralized Likud feels the squeeze

Likud has to resolve its leadership problem before it can regain any of its former influence.

silvan shalom 248 88 aj (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
silvan shalom 248 88 aj
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
The Likud executive met last Sunday for the first time since the elections. Only a handful of reporters was present. The executive is a group with no real power in the party. Traditionally it has been a forum for ideological discussions, while the party secretariat is the body that makes the real decisions. The banner on the wall behind the seven MKs who had turned up read: "The Likud is renewing itself," but the party activists present, some of them veterans of the pre-independence underground days, were demanding a return to the old Herut ideology. Party old-timer Jack Levy derided the leadership: "Ever since Ariel Sharon announced that there would be a Palestinian state, you've all been zigzagging, each of you worried about his own ministry. You kept quiet. If you had voted no-confidence in him, Gush Katif would still be ours." Other speakers carried on in the same vein, while most of the MKs tried to evade the issue. Likud chairman Binyamin Netanyahu said there was a need for "perspective" before the party came out with an up-to-date platform. "What brought us down is a question for historians," said MK Yisrael Katz. "Was it the people around the prime minister or, perhaps, the political extremism of the some of the people in the Likud?" This query appeared to cause discomfort among some of the members. Limor Livnat further raised their ire when she said that "if we espouse the views of National Union, then we'll receive the same number of MKs that they have. We shouldn't be joining that kind of right-wing." One of the MKs said after the meeting, "If it was up to the old-timers, we could go down to three MKs. Just as long as we wouldn't be giving up one grain of sand of the Land of Israel." Left unanswered by the executive meeting was the question of whether the Likud still has a sizable enough swath of potential voters and a viable ideological platform. Senior activist and Knesset candidate Shmulik Slavin, one of the party members involved in the efforts to rebuild the party, said this week, "The question is whether there is still a secular right-wing in Israel which is willing to support the traditional Likud position: that we are in favor of peace, but not one in which we get nothing in return." But the ideological dissonance between some of the party's rank and file and it's leadership, which prefers a more pragmatic version of right-wing politics, is far from the main problem facing the Likud, six months ago the party of power, now an opposition party the same size as Shas and Israel Beiteinu. It is being squeezed between Kadima and the right-wing parties and demoralized by the disengagement and the departure of Ariel Sharon and so many among the party's leadership. And to top it all, the party is facing a NIS 40 million deficit, which it is trying to cover by firing most of its employees and closing down most of its local branches. The next step might be selling off the party's Tel Aviv headquarters, Metzudat Ze'ev, its main asset. But even if the party manages to return to a stable financial footing, there is a still a long and difficult road ahead. "The next elections will be make or break for us," said Katz. "If we don't manage to make ourselves relevant again, we'll become a niche party with no real influence." But before the Likud can have any chance of regaining a degree of its former influence, or even dream of returning to power, it has to resolve its leadership problem. Netanyahu stresses in his appearances the need for party unity, but even MKs who used to be staunch supporters are hesitating now. "They are all worried that Netanyahu will decide soon that he's had enough and he's leaving," said one member, "so they're not backing him a hundred percent." "Netanyahu is still conducting polls," said one Likud MK. "He realizes that he has a serious obstacle to overcome in the public's opinion of him. In a few months, he's going to have to make a decision: Does he have a chance to overcome that obstacle or is he a burden on the Likud, rather than an asset? That's the same question we're all asking ourselves." MK Silvan Shalom is convinced that he already knows the answer. "It's not personal, but the fact is that Netanyahu is unelectable," he said. Shalom is busy collecting the requisite 600 signatures to convene the party's central committee and demand an early leadership primaries. "I believe that I'm the only person who can bring the party together, bring this government down and beat Kadima," he said. Netanyahu is also convinced, at least outwardly, that the only thing that the party needs is to unite behind his leadership. One of his advisers said this week that "what we have to do first is weed out all the Kadima people who are still members of the Likud and working against us from within." Netanyahu's people hint that Shalom might defect to Kadima any moment. Shalom dismisses these charges. "I had an offer from Sharon to join Kadima and a guarantee that I would hold on to my post as foreign minister, but I stayed in the Likud," he said. "And Netanyahu knows that I can win the primaries this time around, that's why he's against having the primaries now." But many party insiders believe that the real leadership showdown won't be between Shalom and Netanyahu. The Likud leadership, despite the party's dismal state, is still seen as a desirable political position. So much so that there are already a number of outside candidates being mentioned as possible contenders. Chief among them is President Moshe Katsav, a former Likud MK and minister who is set to end his term of office next year. He is said to be maintaining low-level contacts with his supporters in the party. Another possible candidate and former Likudnik is Avigdor Lieberman, currently leader of Israel Beiteinu, which almost overtook the Likud in the last elections. More than one MK spoke wistfully this week of a scenario in which Lieberman would step in and amalgamate the two parties. They would then be the second largest political force in the Knesset, once again within striking range of power.