The bitter taste of victory

Despite retaining the premiership, Likud bemoans election results.

Liberman and Netanyahu at Likud Beytenu faction meeting 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Liberman and Netanyahu at Likud Beytenu faction meeting 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Anyone unfamiliar with Israel’s election campaign would have had a hard time believing that the Likud Party gathering at the Tel Aviv Exhibition Grounds on January 22 was the victory celebration of the winning party.
At first glance, the stage was set at Hangar 15 to be a night to remember – some longtime activists arrived early, a new generation of Likudniks greeted party Knesset Members with dancing and drums, and a virtual army of local and international media was on hand to interview the re-elected MKs and broadcast Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s victory speech.
Nevertheless, the trappings failed to mask a palpable feeling, maybe not of dread, but certainly of concern – concern that the party would fail to meet pre-campaign expectations, concern that the party leadership had lost touch with both the grassroots membership and the public at large. In short, there was concern that the party had become a shell of its former self, even if the election results still awarded the prime ministership to Likud chairman Netanyahu.
Throughout the evening, the media far outnumbered party members. Rows of chairs remained empty, even during the lead-up to Netanyahu’s arrival and victory speech after midnight. Hours earlier, long before TV networks broadcast initial exit polls that showed that Likud Beytenu (the Likud’s joint list with Yisrael Beytenu) had won a disappointing 31 seats, a small group of teenage and 20-something party activists armed with marching snare drums and Likud flags were unable to generate the excitement generally found at a winning party’s headquarters.
“I’ve got a bad feeling in my gut about all this,” said Hilik Attias, a member of the Likud Central Committee from Hod Hasharon near Tel Aviv. “I think the way the party leadership has run this campaign has been a disaster.
There was no grassroots work – we couldn’t even get funding to print election flyers. I feel the party leaders have become complacent, and that’s a very bad sign for the future.”
Even worse, said Attias, was the fact that Netanyahu had steamrolled party activists on numerous occasions – a sentiment echoed by many Central Committee members, with each one interviewed for this article making the same two identical comments. “Netanyahu pays no attention to us,” and “Netanyahu does what he wants no matter what we think.”
Likud activist Emanuel Gertel, a member of the Founding Generation faction of the Central Committee, expanded on Attias’s point, criticizing Netanyahu for “destroying every remnant of a functioning political party in a democracy,” and adding, “We have no party constitution or institutions any more.
Damn it, the party couldn’t even be bothered to put together a clear, formal election platform. They simply assumed that people would vote for us.”
Naturally, Gertel said he was happy that Netanyahu would be asked to form the next government, but added that he felt the party had lost touch with both the public and traditional Likud ideology. The prime minister could lose the support of the party, if he continued to treat the Likud as his “own private country club,” Gertel warned.
“There is no doubt that Netanyahu is going to have problems if he tries to implement some of the policies he has spoken about,” Gertel continued. “Already back during his first term as prime minister, his signing of the Wye River Accord [ceding control of most of Hebron to the Palestinian Authority] gave a Likud stamp of approval to the disastrous Oslo process. That’s also true of his Bar-Ilan speech. He speaks about a Palestinian state as if the Likud is his own private party. But it isn’t. The official Likud platform says ‘the two banks of the Jordan River,’ and that’s the policy we want. If he tries to steamroll us again, he’s going to have trouble from the party membership.”
Perhaps the most unpopular aspect of the Likud campaign among Central Committee members was the deal with Yisrael Beytenu.
Although some members – and most Likud MKs – felt the deal was a reasonable one because it ensured the center-right political bloc would form the next government, others felt Netanyahu had sold some senior Likud MKs down the proverbial river by meshing the two parties’ election slates. Regardless of their personal opinions of the deal, Central Committee members agreed that they had been sidelined out of the decision-making process.
“I don’t know whether the deal is good for the Likud or not because the deal was never presented to us for debate or approval,” said Daniel Katz, a Central Committee member.
“I am not aware of the details of the deal, its duration, or what it’s supposed to entail other than a joint election list. All I know is that it was a deal between Bibi and [Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor] Liberman, and not the Likud and Liberman. “But I do think that if we had campaigned properly, we could have improved our numbers in the Knesset significantly, instead of dropping the number of overall Likudniks,” Katz added.
Former Defense Minister Moshe Arens, another senior party official, also criticized the deal with Yisrael Beytenu, terming it an “unnatural marriage.” According to Arens, “The Likud is a historic movement with deep ideological roots. There are thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of members who can say, ‘I’m a Likudnik, my father was a Likudnik, my grandfather was a Likudnik,’ etc.
“On the other hand, Yisrael Beytenu is essentially a sectoral party catering to Russian immigrants.
Even more problematic is the fact that Yisrael Beytenu is a one man show, with a strong leader at the top who chooses the party’s election list. You can’t match that up with the Likud, which has party primaries and an internal democratic system,” Arens tells The Jerusalem Report in a telephone interview the day after the election.
If the election night event is anything to go by, it would appear, too, that the Likud is changing.
For decades, the party has viewed West Bank settlers and Sephardim from the weaker socioeconomic sectors of society as its primary constituents.
Today’s membership appears more diverse. Most of the people attending the election night event were indistinguishable from their Labor peers – white, middle class, mostly Ashkenazi.
In contrast to the Labor Party, but also in contrast to Likud election events in the past, a significant portion of the younger generation on election night (not to mention several MKs) had kippot on their heads, but these members were mostly from established communities inside the Green Line, and not from the West Bank.
Perhaps the clearest illustration of the party’s changing demographic is Roy Shoyer, a 33-year-old resident of Tel Aviv and an active member of the party’s lesbian and gay faction, known as the Proud to be Likud faction. “When I came out of the closet at age 15, the most natural place for me to go was Meretz,” says Shoyer. “But eventually I became disillusioned with the party – not only did the peace process blow up in our faces, but the people responsible for it refused to take any responsibility for that.
“It took me several years, but eventually I made my way to the Likud,” he continues.
“I think Prime Minister Netanyahu has got it right about a lot of things: He’s right that the Palestinians simply won’t make peace with us, and I think he’s managed the economy very well, especially when you compare Israel to Spain or Greece, or even the United States. Of course, I certainly want my individual rights – I hope to marry my boyfriend someday – but I think the party’s stance on individual rights supports that.”
At the end of the day, what remains to be seen is the degree to which the Likud is prepared to digest the results of the election and the fact that together Likud and Yisrael Beytenu lost a quarter of their joint parliamentary power. Another phrase that reverberated around the hall in Tel Aviv on January 22 was “soul-searching”; but again, opinions regarding what elements of the campaign the party would be wise to reconsider and revamp varied greatly.
Significantly, there appeared to be a split between party MKs and activists on this point.
MK Danny Danon expressed satisfaction with the election results. “Of course we had hoped for more seats, but we’ve won the election and Netanyahu will form the next government, so there is no way you can say we lost this election,” he told reporters.
But there are indications that the party hierarchy – and specifically Netanyahu – has yet to internalize the change that has taken place in domestic politics as a result of the election.
To cite two examples: In mid-December, after Bayit Yehudi leader Naftali Bennett said he would refuse to comply with Israel Defense Forces orders to evict settlers from their homes, Netanyahu launched a ferocious attack on Bennett on TV. It was a classic “old politics” move, intended to staunch Bennett’s rising popularity. But the move had the opposite effect.
Bennett refused to respond to the criticism, and simply stood by watching as his popularity rose as Netanyahu’s fell.
The second example came just three days after the election, when news reports suggested that Netanyahu’s former chief of staff Natan Eshel, who resigned in disgrace early last year after being accused of sexually harassing a female member of the Prime Minister’s Bureau, would be conducting the coalition negotiations for the Likud.
The prime minister was forced to change course when both Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid and Labor’s Shelly Yachimovich said they would not negotiate with Eshel.
As a result, even veteran Likud voters who cast their ballots for the party said they had done so this time only because they felt there were no other viable choices for prime minister. They warned, however, they would not continue to do so if the party failed to pull itself together to address the country’s needs.
“I’ve been a Likud voter all my life, but it was hard for me to put that Likud slip of paper in the ballot box this time,” said one businessman who asked to remain anonymous, fearing a backlash vis-à-vis his business activities. “At the end of the day, I did give the party my vote, but I’m telling you now: Bibi is going to have to work hard and to listen to the needs of ordinary Israelis and the international community. On the international stage, I have no expectations of the Palestinians, but he cannot continue to fight with our allies around the world.
Here at home, people need to know the government is here to serve them, not the other way around.
“So I voted for the Likud this time, but I feel they are going to have to work hard in order to earn my vote whenever the next election is held.”