TEL AVIV — Early this past Monday morning, as the first voters made their way to the polls to vote in the Likud leadership primary, party front-runner Benjamin Netanyahu visited the Western Wall in Jerusalem. Addressing reporters afterward, Netanyahu said he “prayed for the health of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon,” who had suffered a mild stroke the night before. (See story, Page 5.)
Netanyahu’s statement was received with bemused skepticism, given the well-documented acrimony between the two. Some commentators cynically suggested that Netanyahu asked for victory in the primaries — which he eventually got, receiving 44% of the vote — and for improved fortunes for the Likud in the coming general elections. Polls conducted the day of the primary showed that support for the former ruling party still stands at less than 10% of the general public, equivalent to about 11 projected seats in the Knesset — a mighty fall from the 40 seats it held until Sharon’s departure a few weeks ago.
Netanyahu returns to the Likud helm six-and-a-half years after Ehud Barak ejected him from the prime minister’s seat, and almost three years after he was soundly defeated by Sharon in the 2003 Likud primaries. He faces a daunting task in his latest comeback. If anything, the primaries showed just how splintered and leaderless the party has become, haunted by fears of imminent defeat and by obvious rifts among the few leaders who didn’t defect to Sharon’s Kadima party.
This was painfully apparent during the party’s primary campaign. Netanyahu’s people hinted that his main adversary, Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, would join Sharon if he lost. They openly accused Sharon’s son Omri of helping Shalom’s cause. They even used the term “fifth column” regarding Shalom’s people.
Shalom struck back with accusations that “if Bibi loses, he will leave the country” — referring not only to Netanyahu’s political hiatus after his 1999 loss, but also to his rather strange claim that he had been asked recently by an Italian entrepreneur, Carlo De Benedetti, to become Italy’s finance minister (De Benedetti later said he was joking).
Perhaps the most important result of the primary, however, had no direct connection to Netanyahu or to Shalom, who came in second with 33% of the vote. There was, first of all, the apparent lack of enthusiasm about the whole process. Only slightly more than 50,000 people took the trouble to vote, less than one-third of the turnout for the Sharon-Netanyahu contest in 2003. And then there was the startling achievement of the man who came in third, Moshe Feiglin. A leader of the Zu Artzenu (This Is Our Land) protest movement against the Oslo Accords, Feiglin was convicted of seditious acts for his role in leading inflammatory 1995 demonstrations against the government of the late Yitzhak Rabin. This week Feiglin garnered 12.5% of the Likud primary vote, putting him far ahead of Yisrael Katz, a prominent Cabinet minister and longtime party power broker.
Feiglin joined Likud only a few years ago, with the declared intention of taking over the ruling party and instituting what he calls “leadership of faith.” He claims that Israel has lost its meaning and direction by becoming a secular, “normal” state, and that only a leadership based on faith — in religion and in the territorial doctrine of Greater Israel — can save it. Media coverage has frequently depicted him as something of an oddball, focusing on his fringe views and on the outsider, true-believer style of his activist followers. In the wake of this week’s primary, however, it no longer can be denied that he now commands his own faction in the party, several thousand strong — and growing relatively stronger as the Likud grows weaker.
In fact, Feiglin’s achievement and the small turnout seemed to indicate how far the Likud, which only two months ago was considered to have near-permanent political supremacy, has fallen.
If the current situation holds through the March 28, 2006, election, the Likud will fall back to the worst days of Herut, one of its founding parties, under Menachem Begin. Moreover, those who still adhere to the old irredentist stands — which Begin himself eventually gave up — would find themselves stronger within the party than at any time in the past 30 years.
Finance Minister Ehud Olmert, a longtime party stalwart who defected with Sharon to the new Kadima faction, declared after the primary that Netanyahu was a “captive” of extremists, and Netanyahu himself appeared to be referring to Feiglin when he vowed after the vote to “clear” the party of “negative” elements.
This seems to be Netanyahu’s great task: how to make the great turn toward the center needed to avoid complete disaster, while leading a party that some Sharon allies are calling “Feiglinyahu’s.”
Netanyahu managed to pull this off in 1996, when he declared that he accepted the Oslo Accords and managed to gather enough centrist votes to narrowly defeat Shimon Peres. This time, though, the task is far more difficult. Sharon has the center locked up, and Netanyahu himself, following his late resignation from Sharon’s government and his balking on the disengagement plan, is now one of the most unpopular politicians in Israel. A source in Sharon’s camp told the Forward that according to Kadima’s polls, only about 20% of Israelis consider Netanyahu fit for the premiership — a number even smaller than the approval ratings of Ehud Barak, the man whom Sharon beat handily in 2001.