Netanyahu has finally removed 'liberal' from Likud's identity - opinion

It is time to remove “Liberal” from the party name. Today, the Likud stands for one thing and one thing only: how to keep its leader out of court and jail.

 Head of the Likud Party Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at a conference at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in Jerusalem this week. (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
Head of the Likud Party Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at a conference at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in Jerusalem this week.
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

It was a long time ago, but when the Likud formed in 1973 it was a merger of several parties.

One was Gahal, an acronym for the “Freedom Liberals Bloc.” Another party was called the Mamlachti List, a similar name to what Benny Gantz’s National Unity Party is called in Hebrew.

Likud’s founding principles were the combination of three values: liberalism, unity and nationalism, and that is what the name Likud is meant to illustrate: the bringing together (Likud) of the “National Liberal Movement,” as it is officially called.

But after this week, it is time to remove “Liberal” from the party name.

 Benjamin Netanyahu and other Likud members make a number four gesture (credit: LIKUD SPOKESPERSON) Benjamin Netanyahu and other Likud members make a number four gesture (credit: LIKUD SPOKESPERSON)

Israel's Likud Party is not liberal at all

For a long time, Likud has not looked at all like a liberal party. Its move to the right combined with calls to dismantle the judiciary and fire the attorney-general has left little doubt in the direction to which this party is headed. And if it were still in question, what happened this week buries any sense of liberalism the party might have retained.

First came opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu’s pledge that if he becomes prime minister, the budget for haredi institutions that do not teach core curriculum will be increased.

What this does is disincentivize haredi schools to join a government program that would have provided special funding for math, English and Hebrew studies. And without English, math and Hebrew, more haredi Jews will remain in poverty, failing to find substantial jobs that will help provide for their families. Nor will they integrate into Israeli society.

Is this good for Netanyahu? Actually, yes. Why? Because his pledge helped prevent the splitting of United Torah Judaism into its two separate factions ahead of the election, which would have almost certainly seen one of the two fail to cross the electoral threshold.

In Netanyahu’s pursuit of 61 MKs for a ruling coalition, no vote can go wasted, and if that means facilitating something counterproductive to the interests of the state, then so be it.

Then on Wednesday, Netanyahu continued his campaign to ensure no votes are wasted by convincing Religious Zionist Party leaders Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir to add Noam head Avi Maoz to their joint list.

Maoz is a zealous opponent of LGBTQ+ rights, Reform Jews, and anything else that contains a tinge of pluralism or liberalism in Israel. He and his Noam Party are vehemently opposed to women serving in the IDF, and have called to disband the office of the IDF Gender Affairs adviser to the chief of staff because he claims it weakens the military by promoting diversity and gender equality.

He now holds the 11th slot on the Religious Zionist list, and if polls are to be believed, he will make it into the Knesset alongside his friends Smotrich and Ben-Gvir.

Is any of this illegitimate? No. It is legal, fair and part of the political game. But it also needs to be seen for what it is: the decline of the Likud as the party that it once was, one that stood for values, principles and big ideas. Today, the Likud stands for one thing and one thing only: how to keep its leader out of court and jail.

Just look at the Likud list.

Anyone who dared to refuse to publicly defend the embattled leader – not criticize, just not stand up for him – slid down the party’s list in the recent primary vote. Yuli Edelstein, once one of the party’s top members, dropped from the No. 2 spot to No. 17. Tzachi Hanegbi, a longtime party stalwart, is off the list, and even Nir Barkat, the popular former mayor of Jerusalem, failed to secure one of the top spots.

If only the public could hear what some party members say privately about Netanyahu. They understand that their party has changed, and many wish there was a way to go back to the Likud that stood for something a bit deeper and more meaningful than just helping its leader fight off an indictment.

They are nauseated by the worshipping of a single individual, and how their own personal value is determined solely on the strength of the defense they provide for the party chairman. Many understand that this is not politics, but rather a form of political idolatry.

One recent public example of this was the spat between Likud MK Yoav Kisch and National Unity MK Sharren Haskel, a former Likudnik who broke away from the party when Gideon Sa’ar founded New Hope last year. Kisch, according to Haskel and Sa’ar, offered them both after election No. 3 to leave Likud and help establish a new party with him.

Kisch tried to deny the story, but what he couldn’t deny was that he was one of the first Likud MKs to support Sa’ar in 2019 when the justice minister ran against Netanyahu for Likud leadership. Netanyahu, he explained at the time, could not form a government, and his continued rule over the party was endangering the Right.

Three elections later, has anything changed?

The Right – as Kisch would like to see – is still not in power, and according to polls, is still not reaching the needed 61. Nevertheless, there is a party line that needs to be touted, and as his placement in the recent primaries showed – Kisch is slotted seventh – loyalty to Netanyahu pays off.

For some MKs, the concessions given to the haredim and the support of Kahanist Ben-Gvir and homophobe Maoz is deeply disturbing. Nevertheless, they stay quiet, just like Amir Ohana does when he - a gay Likudnik who has two children with his partner - watches Netanyahu secure a spot in the Knesset for someone who thinks that the way he lives is “not normal.”

Considering Likud’s history – the Jabotinsky roots, the leadership of Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir, and even the old Netanyahu – this today is a different party.

Liberal is something it is not anymore.

 Communications Minister Yoaz Hendel at the Jerusalem Post Conference in New York, September 12, 2022 (credit: CLINT SPAULDING) Communications Minister Yoaz Hendel at the Jerusalem Post Conference in New York, September 12, 2022 (credit: CLINT SPAULDING)

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Regarding Yoaz Hendel's decision to drop out of the Israeli elections

First a disclaimer: Communications Minister Yoaz Hendel is a friend.

His decision this week not to run in the upcoming election was necessary. After too many party switches, mergers and breakaways, he was left without a platform on which he could run.

While he could have tried to use the Zionist Spirit party that he founded with Ayelet Shaked before breaking away, there was little chance that he would have crossed the threshold. As a result, he decided not to run.

Whether you like Hendel or don’t, his departure says something about Israeli politics. He came to public service in 2018 to do exactly that: serve the public. And his tenure over the last two years as communications minister was a perfect illustration of what that means.

He rolled out fast fiber-optic Internet throughout the country with an emphasis on the periphery; he worked to privatize the country’s horrendous Postal Service (still in progress); he fought to break haredi control over the kosher cellphone market; and he drafted plans for how the state can restore its sovereignty to parts of the country where police are afraid to enter.

He worked hard and brought results. But as Herb Keinon wrote in yesterday’s Jerusalem Post, it was not enough. While Hendel drew red lines and refused to cross them throughout his tenure in the Knesset – not to sit with the Arab Joint List, and not to enter a narrow government led by Netanyahu – neither of those decisions paid off on a personal level.

He could have broken ranks with Blue and White in 2019, join Netanyahu and receive any ministerial portfolio he wanted; he could have allowed Benny Gantz to bring the Joint List into the coalition then too, and been rewarded for it. But he refused both times because there are some lines that are not crossed, even in a political system as cynical as the one we have here in Israel.

The Israeli public learned that being decent, acting with integrity and working for the public is not enough. A politician does need to play the game and get his or her hands dirty to remain on the field.

Hendel showed that with determination and hard work, you can stand up for principles and still get things done. In Israeli politics today, that is unfortunately not enough.