Can the Likud save itself and help the country?

The comparison you will frequently hear is with 1984, not the novel but the year in which, for the first time, the election results required a “unity government.”

LIKUD AND BLUE and White campaign posters in Petah Tikvah in April (photo credit: REUTERS/NIR ELIAS)
LIKUD AND BLUE and White campaign posters in Petah Tikvah in April
(photo credit: REUTERS/NIR ELIAS)
There were multiple parties running in the election last week, but only two candidates for prime minister. Benny Gantz and Benjamin Netanyahu presented specific, and markedly different visions of the governing coalitions they wished to form. Gantz made clear from the get-go that he was seeking a unity government with the Likud and without the two ultra-Orthodox parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism, and the Right/far-right composite Yamina Party. Netanyahu insisted that his aim was to form a narrow right-wing government with exactly those three parties.
Post-election, Netanyahu has changed his tune, calling for a unity government; even going so far as to refer to the coming Jewish New Year as “the year of unity” (a somewhat laughable aspiration from the man responsible for the most toxically divisive and unethical election campaign ever run by a leading party in Israel). The disingenuousness of the statement was obvious; it emerged immediately after the announcement of a pact between the Likud and its so-called “natural partners”: Shas, UTJ and Yamina. So, the ‘unity government’ Netanyahu was proposing was actually just the Right/religious coalition he had always intended, with Blue and White tacked on.
At the time of writing, two days after the two prime ministerial candidates met with President Reuven Rivlin in a bid to kick-start coalition negotiations, the Likud’s alliance with its “natural partners” seems only to have hardened. Netanyahu spoke to the heads of the three parties after the Gantz meeting and reassured them that he was representing, not just his own party, but the “entire ‘national camp.’” By effectively subsuming his own party into this larger bloc, Netanyahu is abandoning the very distinctive traditions of the Likud, and worse, he is (perhaps deliberately) making a deal with Blue and White almost impossible.
The comparison you will frequently hear is with 1984, not the novel but the year in which, for the first time, the election results required a “unity government” of the two largest parties: at that time the Likud under Yitzhak Shamir and Labor under Shimon Peres. The reason this outcome actually produced a stable government was that at that time, the ideological differences between the two parties were not as great as they would later become. This was eight years before the Oslo Accords. In 1984, Peres no less than Shamir was opposed to the notion of an independent Palestinian state. For both parties at that time, the PLO was an irredeemable terrorist organization.
By the same token, on the Palestinian question, there is little daylight between Netanyahu and Gantz. Neither one sees the Palestinian Authority under Mahmoud Abbas as a serious peace partner. It is likely that Netanyahu is content with that situation, whereas Gantz may well wish it were otherwise, but in practical terms, they would not disagree much on how to proceed in the short-to-medium term. Similarly, on other issues of security, including the most pressing question of Iran, the two men barely differ.
THE BIG difference lies in the two parties’ approaches to democracy and the rule of law. The Likud-led governments of recent years have initiated a host of legislation – or attempted legislation – which attack fundamental, liberal democratic principles, including freedom of expression, the rule of law, minority rights and checks and balances on majority rule. It adds up to a rupture with the party’s ideological heritage, the liberal nationalism of Ze’ev Jabotinsky and Menachem Begin. Under Netanyahu, the Likud has moved ever closer to the populism that we see in places like Hungary and Poland, where the majority look to retain power through feeding the fears and prejudices of its electoral base, demonizing other sectors of society and attacking the legitimacy of institutions that are a check on the government’s power.
In the early years of this unbroken decade of Netanyahu’s premiership, he was the man responsible for quietly shelving or postponing anti-liberal legislation proposed by party colleagues or from other right-wing parties. In 2012 for example, he said, “The judicial system has often been under attack.... We didn’t let anything harm it. Only recently I acted to prevent a law that threatened to impair the independence of the judicial system.... I will continue to do so, and every time something arrives on my desk that threatens the independence of Israeli courts, I will block it.”
He has since turned 180 degrees, now supporting Ayelet Shaked’s proposed law which would enable a basic majority of 61 Knesset members to overturn the judicial review of the Supreme Court. In the Israeli system, the Supreme Court provides the sole check on the power of the majority to enact whatever legislation it likes.
Dan Meridor, a former aide to Begin and then a Likud MK and minister in several governments, has frequently voiced his own concerns about his old party. For example, “Likud was a unique mix of two great ideas: The liberal idea of the rule of law, human rights, of the importance of the individual, and the national story of the Jews. This delicate balance was led by Menachem Begin when he headed Likud.... This balance has been disturbed in favor of more nationalistic, National-Religious ideas.” Meridor publicly came out in support of Blue and White earlier this year.
Is Netanyahu willing and able to divert the Likud from its current path, at the end of which lies the anti-democratic, ethnic nationalism of a Bezalel Smotrich or Itamar Ben-Gvir? Can our longest serving prime minster find the statesmanship and authority to return his party to something like its former self, allowing a stable coalition with Blue and White based on shared values: the liberal Zionist values expressed in our Declaration of Independence, rather than the intolerant chauvinism of the extreme religious Right?
If not, if he won’t set aside his own desperate attempts to avoid a criminal trial and put his country first, the Likud must act quickly to replace him, and to agree to serve in a Gantz-led coalition – or at least a rotation with Gantz first in line (Blue and White is the largest party, just as Labor was in 1984 when Peres went first.)
At the time of writing, it is hard to feel optimistic, but maybe, just maybe, this crazy year of Israeli politics will end with one more surprise.
The author has written on the Middle East and the Jewish world for a number of Israeli, British and American titles, and lectures on Israeli politics and history to visiting groups in Jerusalem.