Jerusalem — It seemed like a disaster for Likud party leader Benjamin Netanyahu when ultra-hawks triumphed in the party’s December 8 primary.
Moshe Feiglin, a far-rightist best known for advocating mass civil disobedience to protest the Oslo peace process in the mid-1990s, scored 20th on the party’s roster, all but guaranteeing him a place in Israel’s parliament as a Likud representative. Two of his followers occupied spots 35 and 36, respectively.
Worse, more than a dozen candidates who won realistic spots on the Likud roster were well to Netanyahu’s right and likely to fight any peace agreement he might seek.
According to The New York Times, the results left Netanyahu “in a bind” and jeopardized his chances of forming a centrist coalition.
But a few days after the primary, things looked very different. Netanyahu’s followers had seen to it that Feiglin was demoted by the Likud elections committee to slot 36. His two associates were each bumped up one spot as a result. And Netanyahu had turned a perceived setback into a concrete gain.
“We call Netanyahu Teflon,” marveled Camil Fuchs, a Tel Aviv University academic who has conducted surveys recently in the Israeli daily Haaretz. “Nothing touches him. Even when awful things happen, people say it doesn’t matter. They are saying, ‘Don’t bother me with facts Ρ my mind is made up.’”
In fact, Netanyahu appeared to have effectively exploited the Feiglin challenge for his own ends. The hard line he took against Feiglin allowed him to position himself as a political centrist. “He has successfully used the threat of Feiglin in a strategic way to present himself and his party as moderate and come out unharmed as he managed to push Feiglin down the list,” Hebrew University political scientist Tamir Sheafer told the Forward.
Likud appears to have an unshakable lead in the opinion polls. Even when it looked as if Feiglin would grab a top spot on the party roster, this was unchanged.
A post-primary poll for Haaretz predicted that Likud would form the next government, tripling its current presence in the Knesset, Israel’s 120-seat parliament, to 36 spots from 12. An Israel Radio poll put the number at 34 or 35. These predictions were similar to those of a Channel 99 poll conducted before the primaries.
The ruling Kadima party came in at a distant second in both post-primary polls, with 27 and 20 or 21 seats, respectively, compared with the party’s current 29.
According to Fuchs, Likud’s momentum is almost unstoppable. “Everybody is jumping on the Likud bandwagon,” he told the Forward. “People want to back a winner. It’s like people want to cheer for the winning team in basketball.”
Feiglin, the man who at first looked likely to put a stick in the spokes of that bandwagon, is a political maverick openly at odds with the Likud mainstream. At the party’s most recent conference, he described Likud as “identical to Kadima.” Netanyahu responded by saying that anybody who became an ally of Feiglin would not become a minister under a Likud government.
As the rest of Likud sang the party’s praises after the primary, Feiglin, heading into the elections, had only negative things to say in an interview with the Forward. “The direction Bibi takes Likud is the same path as Oslo,” he said, using Netanyahu’s nickname, “just under the name of the national camp instead of the left. It could even be worse, because there is no opposition. If I’m not [in the Knesset], there will be more of the same.”
Feiglin became a high-profile figure in 1994, when he founded Zo Artzeinu (This Is Our Land), a protest movement opposed to the Oslo Accords. In the course of his anti-Oslo activism, he was arrested for civil disobedience and indicted for sedition against the state. He was convicted and sentenced to 16 months in jail. This was commuted to six months of community service, which he spent helping in a retirement home.
Since the mid-’90s, many on the Israeli right have softened their views regarding territorial compromise on the West Bank with the Palestinians. Feiglin has not. His view of Arab citizens of Israel living within the state’s pre-1967 borders is hardly less hardline.
“Any non-Jew who does not accept the fact that Jews have full and exclusive sovereignty over the Promised Land should find a place in one of the other Arab countries,” he told the Forward. Feiglin distrusts the high court, regarding it as an apparatus of the left wing. This principle led him to decide against appealing to it in regard to his demotion on the Likud list.
In 1996, Zo Artzeinu evolved into the Jewish Leadership movement, which Feiglin led into the Likud party. It was part of a strategy he touted of seeking to ultimately dominate the party from within. Feiglin led the campaign within the Likud against the 2005 disengagement from Gaza. He ran for Likud leadership in 2003, 2005 and 2007. He fared best in the 2007 race, when he received 23% of the vote.
Netanyahu’s success in smoothly weathering the storm of Feiglin’s most recent triumph and the Likud primary success of others to his right surprised many. Some political experts see his resilience as the logical outcome of an Israeli electorate grown wary of party politics. Voters, they say, are instead making up their minds based on whom they want to see as prime minister.
“In our focus groups we see that most of the public that is going to vote, though they will register a vote for a party, will actually be voting for a person. Most voting Likud are voting for Netanyahu, and most voting for Kadima are voting for [party leader Tzipi] Livni,” said Udi Lebel, a political psychologist at Sapir College. “The fact that there is somebody on the list called Feiglin is not very important to them. The person leading the party is what counts.”
Lebel said that this trend is stronger now than in the past, partly as a result of corruption accusations that have undone the current prime minister, Ehud Olmert, who is also widely considered personally responsible for the management Ρ or, many say, mismanagement Ρ of the Second Lebanon War two years ago. “These factors are considered to show how important the person leading the state is,” Lebel said.